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Men More Likely to Take Paternity Leave for a Son, Research Shows

New research on California's paternity leave law suggests men are more likely to take time off when they're having a boy.
Image: Arrivals - State Dinner for Chinese President Xi Jinping at the White House in Washington, DC
Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and CEO of Facebook, and his wife Priscilla Chan arrive at the State Dinner for China's President President Xi and Madame Peng Liyuan at the White House on Sept. 25.CHRIS KLEPONIS/POOL / EPA

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced recently that he would be taking two months off when his daughter is born. We don't know when his wife, Priscilla Chan, is due, but the announcement prompted an immediate discussion of paternity leave and parental benefits.

It turns out Zuckerberg isn't the type of Californian who normally takes paternity leave. Newly published research suggests that men are more likely to take time off when they're having a boy than a girl. They are also more likely to take time off when they work in female-dominated occupations (which tech is most certainly not).

Chart: Factors in Men's Decision to Take Paternity Leave

California is one of only three states that has legislation providing paid family leave for all full-time employees. In fact, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that doesn't have a national paid family leave policy.

A team of professors from Columbia University, the University of California-Santa Barbara and the University of Virginia used data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey to study the effects of California's Paid Family Leave program (CA-PFL) on parents' decision to take time off when their children are born. The law was passed in 2002 and took effect in 2004.

The data show that men were 46 percent more likely to take paid parental leave in the first year of their child's life when CA-PFL was made available. That's a big relative gain, but in absolute terms there is a long way to go — the law boosted paternity leave to 2.9 percent from 2.0 percent.

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Those gains are fueled almost exclusively by first-time fathers and those having sons, the research shows. Overall, men are 58 percent more likely to take time off if they're having a son than if they're having a daughter — with the exception of the first birth. The gender effect is even stronger for married men whose wives also work: For them, the effect of CA-PFL is almost negligible if they're having a daughter.

"Our data doesn't allow us to distinguish why they're doing what they're doing," said Maya Rossin-Slater, one of the authors of the paper and an assistant professor of economics at UC-Santa Barbara. "It could be that for first-born children they just need more help, or it could be employee driven — maybe employers are more generous with leave for the first-born child."

Chart: Parental Leave Claims Filed in California, by Gender

As for gender, the exact motivation is unclear, but it is consistent with previous studies that have found that fathers are also more likely to claim paternity of sons and custody of sons after a divorce.

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The data are somewhat limited because the Census survey asks whether a respondent was out of work the previous week. There's no distinction made between someone who was out for parental leave, sick leave or vacation. By using a statistical method, the researchers can estimate the effect of CA-PFL law by comparing results from California to those in the rest of the country.

The survey does not directly measure the amount of time that workers are taking off for family leave, but if the births are distributed evenly throughout the year, it suggests that CA-PFL added about 2.4 days of male leave to the previous average of 5.2 days.

Studies indicate that programs like California's which puts the financial burden of paid family leave on the state — have had no effect or a positive effect on productivity, profitability, turnover and employee morale.

"Contrary to popular opinion or popular media stories on these topics, it's not the case that these businesses have any adverse effect on measures of productivity or turnover," said Rossin-Slater. "Surely there are some small businesses that are hurt, but overall it doesn't seem to have a negative effect."

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The paper suggests that while men may be less likely to take off work to care for a child due to stigma and gender stereotypes, simply working in a field with a higher percentage of female workers could normalize those benefits enough to encourage more men to take advantage of them. A paper from Norway recently found that having a brother or male co-workers who recently took family leave can increase the likelihood of taking leave. That's the kind of signal that Zuckerberg is sending by opting to take off work to be there for his newborn daughter.

"If we're thinking about ways to increase leave-taking, especially among fathers, it has to be combination of policies that actually make it legal to do so without penalties, and you have to build some sort of culture around it," said Rossin-Slater.