Why More Men in Mathematics Need to Take Parental Leave

By Robin Wilson

When I was first asked to write this post, my plan was to write about the joys and hardships I had while caring for our first child while I had a semester on parental leave.  I quickly realized that this perspective of a male talking about how much fun I had on leave, or how hard it was to care for a newborn might come across as reinforcing male privilege.  In thinking deeper about the message that I wanted to share, I decided to look for information about parental leave policies in the US, in other countries, and in academia. The more I read, the more I learned about the issue of parental leave for families, its history, the intended goals of these policies, and their actual outcomes. The deeper I dug, the more complex the story became. Perhaps most notable is the fact that there is no standard parental leave for women or men. What I’m sharing here is more of a summary of what I have learned and concluded in this process than the personal narrative I had intended.  Despite my limited expertise in the scholarship around family and gender, I hope the readers of this blog will find something of value here and that it contributes to an ongoing discussion.

When my partner gave birth to our first child in June 2014 she was working in a position that allowed her to take 8 weeks of paid leave after the baby arrived.  She returned to work in mid-August at what would have been the start of my fall semester. But because I was fortunate enough to be in a gender-balanced department with a supportive Chair and Dean and a parental leave policy that had been culturally accepted, I was in a position to take paid leave for the semester and be the main childcare provider for our new son during the day when my partner returned to work.  While taking care of a newborn 8 hours a day definitely had its challenges, I surprisingly found the experience was a chance for me to take a professional break, rest, and rejuvenate after nine years of working at a frantic pace. That feeling of relative calm was in stark contrast to that of my wife, who along with having to assume a full-time workload had to balance breast-feeding with sleep deprivation, a change in identity as a new mother, and postpartum depression.  There was no way to compare the ways in which the new child in our lives affected my life as a father, to the ways in which it affected her life as a mother. The responsibility of continuing a professional career while at the same time as nurturing a new life for me as a father may have its share of challenges, but for a mother the demands seem superhuman. For all women the challenges of childbearing have real professional consequences, and for women in the academy these consequences include increasing the likelihood of leaving the academy, working in contingent positions, and increasing time to tenure and promotion [L], [Ma].

While the person who is having a baby doesn’t have much choice when it comes to the need to use their parental leave, it’s unfortunately still true that a large number of fathers aren’t using the option to take parental leave at the same rates as their partners, even when it’s available [P].  In academia it’s also true, especially while looking down the publish or perish barrel, that putting anything above your research aspirations could be potentially harmful for your career. Another issue which hits home is that at the university level there is evidence to suggest that science and math faculty are the least likely to use their parental leave for both women and men [L]. While each situation is different, and I can’t blame any family for the decisions they make about what’s best for them and how to provide for their children, I have to wonder, if a husband has the option to take paid parental leave and chooses not to, could he be hurting the career of his partner?   

The goals of this essay are to both encourage my male colleagues to take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity to bond with our young children and families, and to be able to focus on the needs of older children when the new ones arrive. At the same time, I also want to take this opportunity to reflect on how these policies came to be and take a critical look at how they play out in the workplace in terms of achieving their intended goals of workplace equity for women.  Like most things, these policies turn out to have both tremendous benefits as well as some surprising evidence of drawbacks that work against the intended goals.  

Ways that parental leave supports gender equity in the workplace. 

There is strong evidence that suggests the positive effects of parental leave on gender equity in the workplace. For example, in a study of nine countries in Europe from 1969-1993 paid leave policies were found to have led to an increase in the employment rate for women [Ru]. Similarly, leave policies have shown to lead to an increase in the retention of women employees [RS].  There are multiple ways that policies such as gender-neutral parental leave directly benefit men and also may benefit women when the men choose to take advantage of these policies and use them as well.  For example, more men taking up opportunities provided by their workplace can decrease the social stigma for other men that is associated with taking parental leave.  This in turn has been shown create a “snowball effect” in take-up of leave among co-workers [D]. This can lead to a workplace culture where the social and emotional burden for women who take leave is reduced, as it increasingly becomes a part of the dominant workplace culture.  It’s also likely that when fathers spend more time providing childcare as a result of these policies, mothers have more time for work, and for well needed rest and recovery.  

Studies also show that fathers that take longer parental leave are more involved in the children’s care as they develop.  For example, in [R] the authors demonstrate that “fathers who are home during the initial transition to parenthood come to develop a sense of responsibility that permits shared parenting, regardless of the policy context in which they live.”  Further, a study from 2015 shows that parents who tend to share parenting responsibility more equally are more satisfied with their lives [He].

Ways that paternity leave works against gender equity in the workplace. 

One of the drawbacks of the gender-neutral parental leave policies has to do with accounts of men misusing parental leave to work on their research and provide a career boost similar to that of a sabbatical.  There is both anecdotal and research-based evidence to support the truth of this claim, and includes instances of men taking leave while their partners were stay-at-home spouses or while the child was in full-time daycare [L], [Rh].  While abuse of this policy is certainly one drawback of the gender-neutral leave policy, fear of being accused of being a parent who uses leave to conduct research instead of childcare, also turns out to be a common concern for men when deciding whether or not to take parental leave [L]. This issue has led to counter-arguments that allowing men to take parental leave may reinforce rather than reduce gender inequity in the workplace, and there is research to back this up [Rh].  A recent study of Assistant Professor hires in Economics at 50 Universities in the US showed that when the universities adopted a gender-neutral clock-stopping policy that goes into effect with childbirth or adoption “the probability a man gets tenure in his first job rises by 19 percentage points after such a policy is adopted, while the female probability falls by 22 percentage points. Our estimates show that these policies help men, hurt women, and substantially increase the gender gap in tenure rates.” [A]

However, there is a large amount of data that suggests that both men and women, but men especially, are far too reluctant to take up these opportunities for leave, even when it’s a paid leave as is often the case in academia.  It’s not hard to imagine that the pressures of the tenure process and the publish or perish lifestyle, in addition to the culture that frowns upon anything that draws from research productivity might make one think twice about taking leave for fear of discrimination when it comes time for tenure and promotion.  There are also those opting out because of a personal beliefs, for example perhaps a more traditional viewpoint on parenting and gender roles. And of course, most fathers and mothers have real financial limitations on the amount of unpaid leave they are able to make. Curiously, this issue of opting out seems to be most acute in our discipline of mathematics [L].

I don’t want readers of this post to walk away with an argument for removing these gender-neutral policies such as parental leave because of their potential flaws, but rather draw the reader’s attention to the fact that these policies are only first steps and that decades of gender inequity in the workplace within a patriarchal culture will not be undone by a few strokes of the pen.  As men, women, and as families, it is important that we take advantage of these policies, that we advocate for them for our peers, and we continue to engage in a struggle for institutions that provide a progressive vision of gender equity. Perhaps more importantly, these policies are proven to be most effective when men assume their full role as equal partners in terms of time spent providing child care.  While they require some investment from the institution, paid leave policies ultimately allow faculty to stay committed to their academic careers, while at the same time pursuing family goals and spending time with their young children [L].

 In order to make a significant change in these patterns, it is going to take a significant change in our culture in the academy, and in the mathematical sciences in particular.  As a man in this environment, even as a male of color, I am in a particularly powerful position to advocate for meaningful cultural and policy change. One suggestion I’m providing here is to take advantage of leave policies in larger numbers, and to fully commit to supporting our partners through the process.  But beyond this, we have a responsibility to continue to advocate for a cultural change around gender dynamics in our departments and universities so that our women colleagues can have the experience of participating in academic disciplines without the presence of patriarchy, which is something that all of us men take for granted on a daily basis.    

[A] Antecol, H., Bedard, K., and Stearns, J. (2016). Equal but Inequitable: Who Benefits from Gender-Neutral Tenure Clock Stopping Policies?  IZA Discussion Paper No. 9904. 

[D] Dahl, G. B., Loken, K. and Mogstad, M. (2014). Peer Effects in Program Participation.  American Economic Review, 104(7), pp. 2049–2074. http://dx.doi.org/10.1257/aer.104.7.2049

[He] Hedlin, S., Parental Leave Equality and Subjective Well-Being (Masters Thesis, Harvard, November 1, 2016). Available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=2862813.

[He] Hedlin, S., Parental Leave Equality and Subjective Well-Being (Masters Thesis, Harvard, November 1, 2016). Available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=2862813.

[L] Lundquist, J., Misra, J., and O’Meara, K. (2012).  Parental Leave Usage by Fathers and Mothers at an American University, Fathering: A Journal of Theory Research and Practice about Men as Fathers, 10(3), 337-363.

[Ma]  Mason, M., Goulden, M., and Frash, K. (2011).  Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 638, pp. 141-262.

[Mat] Maternity, paternity and parental leave: Data related to duration and compensation rates in the European Union (2015), Directorate General for Internal Policies, Policy Department C: Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs, Women’s Rights, and Gender Equality.  Available at: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/studies

[P] Pelletier, A. (2006) Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 – Why Does Parental Leave in the United States Fall so Far behind Europe? Gonzaga Law Review 547.

[R] Rehel, E. M. (2014). When dad stays home too: Paternity leave, gender, and parenting. Gender and Society, 28, 110–132. 

[Rh] Rhoads, S. E., & Rhoads, C. H. (2012). Gender roles and infant/toddler care: Male and female professors on the tenure track. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 6(1), 13-31.  Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0099227

 [RS] Rossin-Slater, M. Ruhm, C. J., and Waldfogel, J. (2011). The Effects of California’s Paid Family Leave Program on Mothers’ Leave-taking and Subsequent Labor Market Outcomes.  NBER Working Paper 17715, National Bureau of Economic Research (https://www.nber.org/papers/w17715.pdf)

[Ru] Ruhm, C. (1998).  The Economic Consequences of Parental Leave Mandates: Lessons from Europe, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 113, No. 1, pp. 285-317.


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