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What a Man! He's Taking Paternity Leave!

Vivia Chen

April 20, 2016

Man-holding-baby-Article-201604191409"Get a load of this," said a partner at an Am Law 100 firm, offering me a peek at his Blackberry. "Is this the kind of stuff associates send out these days?" A few seconds later, he grumbled: "Maybe I'm not liberated, but I feel embarrassed for the guy."

What unnerved this Baby Boomer partner was a memo sent by a midlevel male associate to the entire firm. The subject line of the offending missive: Paternity leave. The gist of the memo: "My wife and I just had an adorable baby, and I'm now officially on paternity leave. See y'all in six weeks!"

Paternity leave has become the new standard, but my hunch is that many men aren't taking the full leave. Either they think they're too macho and indispensable to take off a chunk of time, or they're too afraid of how they would be perceived by the powers that be. According to a survey in Above the Law last year, male lawyers face a big stigma when they exercise their rights to these benefits.

Pity, men don't feel quite comfortable about these "personal" things, but that's their problem, right? Well, it's also a problem for women because it affects gender equity at the office and home. The Economist, which recently came out with its glass ceiling index, reports:

Studies show that where new fathers take parental leave, mothers tend to return to the labour market, female employment is higher and the earnings gap between men and women is lower.

"Having children is a massive factor in women's careers," says Economist's statistician, Roxana Willis. "And sometimes women don't go back to work, or go back much later, because of child rearing responsibilities." Sharing those responsibilities by both parents, she adds, "makes a big difference for women."

For the first time since it started covering the glass ceiling three years ago, The Economist decided to look at paternity leave in assessing women's success. Covering 29 of the wealthiest countries (check out the cool interactive chart), the index also weighs women's access to education, workforce participation, management representation, child care costs and maternity leave policies. For some strange reason, women's business school applications is also a factor in the ratings. (Hey, how about law school?)

The best countries for women are—shock, shock—those in frigid climes: Iceland is ranked first, followed by Norway, Sweden and Finland. And guess which country falls below the OECD (Convention on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, comprised of 34 countries) average? Yup, United States of America—the only country in the index that offers no paid leave for either new moms or dads. (At least, both sexes are equally deprived.) 

But here's the paradox: Japan and South Korea offer the longest paternity leave in the OECD (both fathers and mothers get more than 50 weeks of paid leave), though they stink when it comes to gender equality. (Japan, Turkey and Korea make up the three worst places for working women in the index.)

The problem with Japan and Korea is that policy is way ahead of attitude. "What you need is cultural change," says Willis. Though both countries are trying to fix a shrinking workforce by adopting policies that are more family friendly, traditional notions of gender roles are hard to eradicate.

Which brings us back to the law firm situation. Despite the proliferation of paternity leave in law and other high skilled professions, there's still a disconnect between policy and how it plays out in reality. That's a problem, because that means the status quo rules, and men see no urgency in sharing equal responsibility on the home front. No equality at home means stalled equality in the office.

Instead of scratching their heads about why women aren't sticking around, maybe firms should vet the attitudes of their own partners—and dig out the dinosaurs.



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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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