Even in Academia, Dads Don't Do Diapers

Photograph by Jay Reilly

To help women in academia advance, elite universities should consider scrapping their generous paternity policies. That is the counterintuitive conclusion of a research paper published in the January issue of the Journal of Social, Evolutionary & Cultural Psychology.

The writers, Steven Rhoads of the University of Virginia and his son, Christopher Rhoads, of the University of Connecticut, studied a sample of 181 married, heterosexual, tenure-track professors all of whom had children under two and taught at schools with parental-leave policies. While 69 percent of the women in the sample took post-birth parental leave, only 12 percent of the men took advantage of the available leave—even though it was paid. They also learned that the male professors who did so performed significantly less child care relative to their spouses. Worse yet, they report that male tenure-track professors may be abusing paternity leave by using the time to complete research or publish papers, an activity that enhances their careers while putting their female colleagues at a disadvantage. One female participant quoted in the study put it this way: “If women and men are both granted parental leaves and women recover/nurse/do primary care and men do some care and finish articles, there’s a problem.”

The Rhoads’ findings may come as a shock to supporters of gender equality. Although it is targeted at men, paternity leave is also thought to improve the lot of women. The rationale is that if both men and women take time away from work to care for their children, it will no longer be mothers who suffer a disproportionate effect in their careers. Paternity leave is also believed to encourage a more balanced distribution of child-raising responsibilities. Steven Rhoads says he was interested in putting these notions to the test among university professors because he thought young men and women in academia “would be the most progressive on gender roles.”

Not quite. As the authors of the paper state: “Most of the academics in our study said they believe that husbands and wives should share equally, but almost none did so.” To be precise, only three men out of 109 reported that they performed half the child-care work. One possible explanation, according to the father-and-son duo, is that women derive a higher enjoyment of many of the activities involved in the care of small children. The Rhoads asked the men and women to report their level of enjoyment in performing 25 different tasks—everything from playing with the baby to washing his clothes. On almost every count, women said they experienced a higher level of satisfaction. Steven Rhoads admits the discovery that mothers enjoy changing diapers was, to his own mind, the most surprising aspect of his findings. “It shows you gender roles go pretty deep,” he says.

The researchers learned something else from their work. “One thing that’s different about academia is that you can get ahead by not going to the office,” says Steven Rhoads. “This isn’t a possibility if you’re a doctor or a lawyer.” The Rhoads says that during the course of their work they heard stories of male academics who took paid post-birth leave in order “to advance their publishing agendas.” (Publishing research is a key requirement for tenure-track academics.) The authors note that “one top university” had to change its paternity policy to combat such abuse. (Stephen Rhoads would not reveal which institution it was when pressed by this reporter). On the basis of their findings, the Rhoads recommend that universities restrict parental leave to women.

In these budget-strained times, colleges would happily follow through on such a recommendation, says Catherine Curran, an associate professor of marketing at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Charlton College of Business, who has conducted research on gender issues in academia. Curran says there’s “a lot of anecdotal nonsense” about abuses of paternity leave. “It’s hard not be cynical,” she says. “These days, with the budget situation, the universities are looking for any excuse to cut benefits.”

However the controversy plays out, it’s unlikely to spill over into corporate America, where paid paternity leave is rare. A 2011 survey of employee benefits carried out by the Society for Human Resource Management found that only 16 percent of companies offered paid paternity leave—the same percentage as offered paid maternity leave. (A much bigger proportion of women have access to paid parental leave under short-term disability or state law, while both parents may take up to 90 days of unpaid time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act.) By contrast, a full 20 percent of companies offered paid time off for an employee serving on the board of a community group or professional association.

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