The case for paternity leave

Progressive family leave policies can help the industry solve many of its biggest problems, including the gender gap, writes the CEO of Maxus Americas

For decades, Madison Avenue was the epicenter of the creative world, driving change and shaping American culture. But in recent years, it’s fair to say that our industry has lagged behind – grappling with issues like talent retention and gender equality. There’s certainly been a lot of talk about change, but not enough action or measurable results to match it. I’d argue that more progressive family leave policies have the opportunity to tackle a few of our biggest issues at once and drive this change, allowing companies to create a level playing field while also attracting and retaining the best and brightest. As we look to celebrate fathers this Sunday, let’s remember that dads need love, too. And as business leaders, let’s remember that paid paternity leave isn’t just good for fathers – it’s also good for women, for families and for the bottom line.

Our industry has finally, albeit slowly, started responding to the ethical and business case for adding more women to leadership teams. More and more companies seem to be taking action to improve gender parity among their ranks, and many agencies are boosting their paid maternity leave as a ‘perk’ – and I would prefer to call it a human right, not a perk – to attract and retain female employees. And while I welcome this direct response and believe it’s moving us in the right direction, I would caution against seeing it as a "magic bullet" that will help women balance work and family, and miraculously help improve the ratio between men and women in the ranks of upper management. The missing piece of the puzzle, and one that many businesses are overlooking, is that simply giving moms time off, without offering and encouraging paternity leave, will fail to produce the results we all want and society needs.

To provide maternity leave without also supporting fathers or partners is to assume that parental leave exists solely to afford women the time to recover physically from giving birth. It ignores the fact that both parents deserve an opportunity to bond with their child, that fathers also need time to adjust to a monumental, and amazing life change, and that mothers and same sex parents should have the support of their partner. As a proud father of Sam and Charlotte (who are already grown-ups!), who had to learn how to juggle family and career responsibilities at a time when the notion of paternity leave didn’t even exist, I can tell you that the #StruggleIsReal.’ Back then, the society unfairly expected women to put their careers on hold and take on the stay-at-home role. Today, with no standardized maternity leave policies and with only about 17% of American employers offering paid paternity leave at all, we seem to be trying to fix this issue by adding more inequality.

I believe that fairer and more considerate paternity leave policies can help tremendously in closing the gender gap on our teams. That said, these measures only have the potential to level the playing field if they’re offered in a company culture that expects fathers to take time off. At Maxus, we’ve focused on building a supportive culture that is welcoming to all parents, including those adopting – not just mothers. In addition to having four weeks of fully paid leave, we also designed coaching programs for all moms and dads to help new parents transition back to work, and existing parents with the everyday challenges of integrating professional and family lives. It’s up to the leadership of each agency to demonstrate a greater commitment to true parity, outline processes that work best for its employees, and start erasing the stigma that still very much exists around fathers taking leave. By both offering and encouraging men to take their leave, we can begin to normalize it, making men more comfortable with the idea and putting women at less of a disadvantage compared to their coworkers who are eschewing their leave.

Moreover, when men and women take parental leave equally, businesses benefit as well. The importance of gender parity in leadership has been well established for some time now, with research by McKinsey illustrating that companies with higher female representation on their boards deliver an impressive 53% greater return on equity. Normalizing paternity leave for both sexes is the best step we can make towards killing the age-old excuse leaders use to explain why there's such a lack of equality at the top: blaming women for having children.

Beyond the benefits for individual employees or companies, paternity leave has positive effects for society overall. For every man at your company that takes leave, there is a woman or partner who is being supported as a parent, who’s having some of the pressure lifted off his or her own career because of it. Men who take leave go on to be more equal caregivers throughout the lives of their children. And on a macro scale, improvements that encourage women’s labor force participation, such as paid family leave and gender parity at work and home, have the potential to add $2 trillion to the U.S. GDP by 2025, according to research by McKinsey Global Institute.

The U.S. may lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to parental leave, but this Father’s Day, we as business leaders should remember that we have the power to make changes all on our own. We don’t have to wait until we’re forced by law to start building a culture where both genders are supported as parents and in their careers. It’s more than just fair – it will have profoundly positive effects on our employees, our companies and society as a whole.

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