The Case for Paying Dads to Spend More Time With Their Kids

A new paper argues that American men are missing out on a financial bonus that could change the fortunes of women at work
Photograph: Getty Images

The only way to put men and women on equal footing is to discriminate against women, says a new study.

Feminists who think the solution to women’s problems is for them to be treated the same under the law have gotten it all wrong, argues the paper, published this month in the Northwestern University Law Review.

Decades after the government leveled the legal playing field women work by, women still get paid and promoted less than men. To fix that problem—which is partly a result of the expectation that women will take on most of the family child care—Willamette University professor Keith Cunningham-Parmeter argues we need to give American men a bonus. Give men something their peers in other industrialized countries are already getting: extra paid leave, for dad and mom, if they spend time at home with a newborn, he proposes.

This so-called "fatherhood bonus" is necessary because men won't take time off to be with new children otherwise, Cunningham-Parmeter argues. Even though federal law allows both parents to take leave, the average mother takes two months more time off than the average dad. That pattern sticks in the long haul, leaving women stuck at home or in the career slow lane, while men become their bosses.

“The rules of manhood call on men to avoid care work, thereby saddling women with domestic chores,” Cunningham-Parmeter writes. “Today the primary obstacle holding women back at work is not a ‘glass ceiling’ but a ‘maternal wall.’”

Our sense that women are naturally predisposed to raising children is obviously bad for mothers, whose “careers flatline the moment they have children,” but it’s also dangerous for single ladies. Most employers are quietly setting an expiration date on the career progress of every single woman in the office, says the paper, in what amounts to “maternal profiling” of double-X-chromosomes young and old.

Babies, born and unborn, count against women applying for a job, who may seem like a risky hire in light of their child-making potential. They also stymie women who already have a job but may seem like a flight risk who won’t be around for long. A 2007 study showed that, when given two résumés that were identical except one indicated that a woman was a parent, employers were much more likely to give the childless woman a job, and, in the cases where moms got the job, they were offered $11,000 less than childless women, on average.

Making a dent in the subconscious assumption about what it means to be a man may require more than just a policy tweak. Some countries have used social engineering to change perceptions.

Consider Sweden, which introduced what’s now known as a “daddy month” in 1995, giving both parents an extra month off work if fathers took the 30 days of paid leave they already had the right to. After the government added an extra two months to that deal, the share of fathers taking time off jumped from 40 percent to 90 percent over the course of a decade. Mothers took 20 fewer days off, and one study suggested that women saw their earnings rise by 7 percent for each month of parental leave taken by dads.

When Germany made state benefits contingent on fathers taking two months off in recent years, the share of dads who took leave increased eightfold. German dads who take parental leave now stay at home almost as much as U.S. mothers do.

In Quebec, where men are paid at a higher rate than in the rest of Canada to take parental leave, 84 percent of dads take advantage of the policy and mothers affected by it spend more time in the office.

Of course, companies might not jump at the opportunity to give more people more money to work less. The paper suggests a system modeled on experiments in California and New Jersey, where employees themselves fund dual-parental benefits through payroll taxes.

Subsidizing fatherhood on a national level will not necessarily be easy, cheap, or uncontroversial. But Cunningham-Parmeter’s paper suggests that the only way to secure a truly equal American workplace is to buy it.

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