The uproar surrounding Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg taking paternity leave is a strong reminder of a major force holding back gender equality, businesses and the economy: nonsensical stigmas against men as caregivers.
Across the country, men are sometimes fired or demoted or lose job opportunities for taking paternity leave.
Buttigieg had been home since mid-August with his husband, Chasten, as they took care of their newborn twins. When that news broke last week, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson slammed Buttigieg, saying he was on “paternity leave, they call it, trying to figure out how to breastfeed.” MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace accurately described the remark as misogynistic and homophobic. Still, some other critics piled on, pushing the “Mad Men”-era idea that men have no role at home after a baby is born — a preposterous notion that many of us dads quickly rejected.
Buttigieg is far from the first to face such criticism. In one particularly memorable case, MLB player Daniel Murphy faced complaints from popular New York radio hosts who insisted he was shirking his responsibilities as a player by spending time at home with his wife and their newborn child.
Currently, 45 percent of businesses offer paid paternity leave, 55 percent have paid maternity leave and 35 percent have paid family leave (which allows someone to care for a loved one, not just a newborn child), according to the Society for Human Resource Management. One of the policies in the Build Back Better Act— the Democratic budget proposal under debate in Congress — would provide 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for all workers across the country covered by federal or state aid.
Federal employees are already eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave. Cabinet secretaries do not qualify, but the president can allow them the same leave. While it’s obviously true that the Transportation Department needs leadership, Buttigieg has made clear that he remains available for emergencies and continues to be involved in addressing supply chain woes. He also has a team of people who, as with any organization, can step up while he’s on parental leave.
But by taking the time off to welcome his new children, Buttigieg is also serving a major public good: He is helping to normalize paternity leave. Numerous studies over many years have shown that paternity leave benefits everyone: children, parents, businesses, society — and women’s careers. Yet huge numbers of men face stigma just like Buttigieg in taking leave.
Across the country, men are sometimes fired or demoted or lose job opportunities for taking paternity leave. In my book, “All In,” I interviewed men who went through this experience. In a multinational survey I helped Dove Men+Care conduct with Promundo, majorities of men and women agreed that “attitudes among colleagues and managers often leave fathers feeling unable to ask for paternity leave.” (I have a partnership with Dove Men+Care.)
As a result, choice is taken away from families. Ultimately, men not taking leave holds back women in the workplace by making them default caregivers, who then often drop out of the workforce. We’ve seen this dynamic at play during the pandemic. While many men have reduced their work hours to do more at home, and increasing numbers have taken on the lion’s share of caregiving, the unequal caregiving burden has halted the careers of millions of women.
The loss of these women from the workforce drains the economy, reducing productivity and costing the United States as much as $650 billion a year, according to one analysis. And on an individual level, it hurts businesses. Good business leaders know they need to have the best minds in the right jobs. The gendered system pushing women to stay home prevents businesses from holding on to strong female talent.
Fathers taking leave not only helps mothers, it helps their children. The early weeks and months of a child’s life are especially crucial for bonding. As the professional services firm Mercer reported, “Kids whose fathers take paternity leave show better developmental outcomes, improved performance in school, and improved cognitive scores and mental health outcomes as they grow older.”
As Buttigieg told NBC News on Sunday, paid family leave — including paternity leave — is “important as a matter of family values. It’s important to our economy.” He’s also right that “the American people want this, too.”
Many surveys have shown support for paid family leave. A poll last year by the National Partnership for Women and Families found that 75 percent of voters support a national paid family and medical leave policy that covers all workers. This support is across party lines, including 87 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of independents and 70 percent of Republicans.
As Buttigieg pointed out to NBC News, “When somebody welcomes a new child into their family and goes on leave to take care of that child, that’s not a vacation; it’s work. It’s joyful, wonderful, fulfilling work. But it is work.”