Paid leave is an increasingly popular and important issue in the United States. The problems associated with not having a national paid leave policy in the U.S. were clearly evidenced during the COVID-19 pandemic. As congressional leaders currently debate implementing a federal paid parental leave policy, it is important to reflect on the benefits of paid leave for society and how to design paid parental leave policies that will work for American workers.
The benefits of paid parental leave are well-known. Paid leave is associated with better health for parents and children, greater father involvement, and stronger coparenting relationships. Paid leave also helps businesses attract and retain productive employees. Paid leave may also facilitate greater gender equality within the U.S. Despite these benefits, workers are often discouraged from using leave due to our work-first culture. Specifically, taking leave signals that workers are less committed to their jobs, resulting in workers being stigmatized and penalized for taking leave.
While implementing a national paid parental leave policy is essential and long overdue, such a policy will only be useful if workers actually use paid leave and are not penalized for doing so. In a recent study published in Social Science Research, we sought to identify aspects of leave policy design and workplace culture that reduce the stigma associated with leave-taking. We conducted a survey experiment involving approximately 1,700 participants. We presented participants with an HR form detailing an employee’s inquiry about taking paid leave for the birth of a new child, and manipulated various aspects of the leave policy that the worker had had access to (length of leave offered, amount of wage replacement, whether the policy is a “parental” or gender-specific leave policy, and whether the policy is a state or company policy) and whether the workplace culture was supportive of leave-taking. Participants then reported on their perceptions of the leave-taking employee’s commitment to their job.
We find that both mothers and fathers experience a commitment penalty for taking paid parental leave, and penalties are higher when parents take longer leave. But, we find that perceived commitment varies by context. When paid leave is taken in a more supportive context – specifically when parents receive longer periods of paid leave and higher pay while on leave – perceived commitment is higher. Favorable leave policies may signal that organizations are willing to support their employees, which may in turn increase employee commitment. We find that perceived commitment is higher in organizations with favorable leave policies for all workers, regardless of workers’ leave-taking behaviors. As such, implementing better paid leave policies could help change our perceptions of workers.
We also find that perceived commitment is higher for fathers when there is a specific paternity leave policy and workplaces support leave-taking. Because fathers are less likely to take leave and may be uniquely penalized for valuing family over work, organizational context is particularly key for increasing the acceptance of fathers’ leave-taking. However, because favorable leave policies have a larger effect on perceived commitment for fathers than mothers, these policies actually exacerbate gender gaps in perceived commitment. That is, the gender gap in perceived commitment is greater within organizations with better leave policies than in organizations with less favorable leave policies. While this unintended consequence is concerning, more favorable leave policies may still help facilitate greater gender equality over the long-term if these policies encourage and enable more fathers to take leave and be engaged in their family life.
Passing a national paid leave policy is essential for providing needed support to millions of Americans who have caregiving responsibilities yet currently lack access to leave. Based on our experiment, relatively low wage replacement for some workers (as low as 66%) in the national proposal may affect perceived commitment. The lack of leave specific for fathers may also have the unintended consequence of perpetuating the idea that leave policies are for women and not men. As such, we must continue to not only increase access to leave, but to design policies and change the culture surrounding leave to enable more workers to take leave when needed and without penalty. By doing so, the benefits of paid leave for families, companies, and society can be better realized.
Richard J. Petts is a Professor of Sociology at Ball State University. You can read more about his research at www.richardpetts.com and can follow him on Twitter @pettsric.
Trenton D. Mize is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purdue University. You can read more about his research at www.trentonmize.com and can follow him on Twitter @MizeTrenton.
Gayle Kaufman is Nancy and Erwin Maddrey Professor of Sociology and Gender & Sexuality Studies at Davidson College. You can read more about their research at www.gaylekaufman.com and can follow them on Twitter @gakaufman22.