The irresistible rise of the latte papa
I was not a latte papa. After my first child was born on a snowy evening in Brooklyn six years ago, I salted the stoop, gingerly carried her inside and spent four weeks monitoring her breathing. It was a magical time. And then it was a relief to get back to work.
Future fathers will not have the same opportunity to catch up on sleep at their desks. Fund manager Standard Life Aberdeen this week announced it would offer nine months’ leave to all UK staff, regardless of their sex and no matter what leave their partner was taking. Insurer Aviva started offering six months to both new mothers and fathers two years ago.
In the US, technology companies have been at the forefront in offering a substantial amount of paternity leave. Three to five months is now common in Silicon Valley.
The push for paternity leave is not new. It has been a fight in the courts, in politics and within companies since the 1970s. A European plan in the 1980s to grant three months’ paternity leave was described in the Financial Times as the latest “radical” policy from the “perennially progressive social affairs directorate”.
Opinions have shifted over time but the recent acceleration of change is dramatic. I did take an additional month off when my wife returned to work after her three months’ leave, but even this now looks woefully insufficient. In many companies, men taking anything fewer than several months off work will soon be as much of a throwback as those who fail to attend their child’s birth.
For a long time, the argument concentrated on allowing men to bond with their babies and take on a bigger share of childcare. The focus now is on what it might mean for inequalities in the workplace, including the gender pay gap. More paternity leave makes it easier for more women to work full-time — as well as reducing, or at least equalising, any career setback for taking time off.
When fathers do more childcare, there will be less stigma around parental leave, such as that described in a legal complaint against WeWork this week. A former chief of staff to ousted chief executive Adam Neumann claimed he disparaged her maternity leave as “vacation” and “retirement” before she was demoted and ultimately fired. WeWork has pledged to “vigorously defend itself” against the charge.
The option of shared leave is necessary but not sufficient. Even in progressive Sweden, home of the so-called latte papa, men did not immediately take advantage of their right to generous shared parental leave when it was instituted in 1974. Take-up improved as more time was allocated specifically to fathers. Now, three months of the leave is reserved for men, and more of them take it.
Looming demographic disasters have helped change attitudes. Japan’s new environment minister says he might take paternity leave next year — an important signal in a country battling both a low birth rate and low representation of women in senior corporate roles. At a conference this week in South Korea, which faces similar challenges, an OECD economist advised the country to make paternity leave mandatory. Even in the US, a declining population adds to the pressure for change.
Absent state intervention, it will be many years before equality is achieved. Large companies, blessed with chief people officers and a yearning for publicity, can outbid each other to offer more paternity leave but it is a frightening trend for small companies. For employees, though, it is a positive at work and at home. Even for the men.