Most of us would not expect a man to step forward as a leader of the gender equality movement in the workplace. After all, women, not men, have had to work tirelessly to overcome the gender wage gap, to garner more leadership positions, and to have the other sex recognize them not for their looks, but for their very real contributions to business in the U.S.
While it’s true that women experience much of the existing disparity in today’s workforce and fight hard for these equal rights, men not only experience gender discrimination in certain aspects of work, but can be incredible allies for women and gender equality.
Perhaps the most prevalent area of discrimination against men in the workplace is paternity leave. No, men do not need the physical recovery time required from pushing a tiny human out of their bodies. But try telling a modern father that his relationship with his newborn child is less important than the mother’s, and see how that goes over.
“Whether the men of today had active fathers or not in their own lives, this generation is defining new ways to be a dad,” Josh Levs, father and accomplished journalist shared.
However, the majority of current paternity leave policies—or lack thereof—undermine the importance of a father’s involvement in parenting and the family model from the earliest stages. While mothers are given weeks off to spend with their child (and keep in mind most policies on maternity leave or family leave in general are not adequate in the majority of states either), fathers are given days, or expected not to take leave at all due to overwhelmingly macho expectations left over from the Mad Men era of business.
If this is your first time realizing this is an issue, you’re not alone. While there have always been dissenters of these archaic policies, the fight for equal family leave across the board has only gained steam among policy makers and businesses fairly recently.
Before, those loudest to speak against these policies were effectively silenced with ridicule in the workplace or termination. But in this fight, for equality and to win back the family our current generations want, Levs’ message has been heard above the rest of the noise.
It’s not just a message in support of men’s rights and paternity leave either, but a call to action to level the playing field and advocate for more women higher up the corporate ladder through the enactment of these paternity and paid family leave policies.
Levs has succeeded in giving men a voice in an arena where a softer side of masculinity has been largely unwanted and ignored for decades. The father of three from Upstate New York published All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses—And How We Can Fix It Together in 2015, garnering the support of Maria Shriver, Bob Saget, UN Women’s HeforShe campaign, and numerous other sources in support of adequate paternity leave.
His commitment to the cause of paternity leave may have come about when he was a father of two and he and his wife were expecting their third child, but his acceptance of gender equality dated back to his childhood.
“Many people from my generation were raised to the ‘Free to Be… You and Me’ album compiled by Ms. Magazine,” he shared. “These songs and sketches about gender equality led us to be moms and dads that expected this. But the policies didn’t grow up with us.”
This became abundantly clear when he realized his benefits at CNN only included two weeks of paternity leave as the biological father of his child, when virtually any other parent—biological mothers, adoptive parents, partners of those who chose to adopt a child but is not one of the adoptive parents, fathers of children born to a surrogate—were granted 10 weeks of paid leave.
Believing this was merely an unfortunate oversight, Levs raised the issue with the company’s HR department, and was informed that no one had ever raised his point before. No response was given to Levs’ concern, and after his wife gave birth prematurely, his motion for longer paternity leave was denied. CNN asked him to come back to work after the mandated two weeks.
Levs filed a claim for gender discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and in a surprise for the ages, received an incredible amount of support. Several news agencies covered the stories that he himself used to cover from a father and man’s perspective as the “dad columnist” and “resident dad” on CNN and the network’s sister network HLN. Men’s organizations were only second in support to the women’s organizations, which showed him how critical this issue was, not just for men’s rights, but for women’s rights as well.
Although a decision was not quick in coming, CNN and its parent company Time Warner did change the policy: first, by adding a third paid week for dads who have kids the traditional way, and then a year later, changing their leave policies to six weeks for everyone in the life event of having a child, traditional way or not.
But this is only one company—and most of the U.S. has not accepted the terms of modern parenthood among its policies. Globally, the U.S. remains the only industrialized country that does not guarantee paid family leave for its workers.
“Our structures, our businesses, our economy were all built out of the war when the U.S. was becoming a superpower,” Levs shared. “Ideals created during this time of what American masculinity and femininity should be led to the creation and expectation of what the ideal American family should look like. Our modern economy was created on the presumption that women would stay at home and raise the family while the man earned the money.”
When a company gives 12 to 15 weeks of paid leave to the mother, but only two weeks to the father, it is effectively pushing women to stay at home, and pushing men back to work. There are thousands of instances where women had to leave the workforce because, thanks in part to the gender wage gap, their partners make more money, don’t have the leave options the mother does, and under necessity have to start earning again.
“In most scenarios, women are forced to take over caregiving, whether they wanted to return to the workforce or not,” Levs said. “There are several men I interviewed for All In who took leave they were entitled to and were ridiculed, demoted, or fired because they broke from stigma.
“This is a main reason why we lose qualified, skilled women in top positions. They enter the workforce at 50 percent, but less than 5 percent are CEOs. Businesses have to trust that families can and do make good choices. When they do, these companies have a chance to hang on to great women employees.”
It’s not all bad news though: the city of San Francisco is just the Mayor’s signature away from instituting 100 percent paid family leave for six weeks for mothers, fathers, and same-sex couples. New York just signed into law the country’s most comprehensive family leave plans, giving employees three months off every year year to care for children or elderly parents, with the majority of their salary paid.
The biggest win for New York’s businesses? The cost is covered by the employee—about what a cup of coffee comes to a week—not the company. These small paycheck deductions in New York, and the plans in three other states that already have better paid family leave policies (California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey), provide the cold, hard facts against the prevailing notion that paid family leave will end up costing the business.
“The good news is that all of these problems—inadequate paternity leave, fewer women in higher positions—get fixed when we establish the right policy around paid family leave,” said Levs. “It’s proven to be good for everyone, for businesses and families, for the economy, and for society as a whole.”
In states where there is a lack of paid family leave policy, some companies are taking on the responsibility and instituting their own better family policies. And guess what? It pays off, literally.
It turns out high salaries aren’t enough to keep employees loyal anymore: benefits like adequate paid family leave attracts and retains high-quality employees. Levs shared that in some cases, it can cost up to 200 percent of an annual salary to replace an employee. Who would have thought that paying a new parent to be out of the office and spend time with his or her newborn child would be so much cheaper?
All In is the other side of the story to Lean In¸ Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling treatise on women in the workplace. These stories of fatherhood in the modern business landscape should fire up both genders—because as Levs has proved, paid family leave evens the playing field in many ways—as well as both sides of the vast political divide to seek action.
President Obama legislated for family leave for federal workers, and has talked about the importance of his family in his life numerous times—Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton have both made family leave a pillar of their campaigns for the democratic nomination. And although there are no republicans in congress willing to sponsor a move toward these policies in congress, both sides agree they want more paid leave.
Today, Levs has switched gears from his journalistic roots to promote not only his book, but better family leave policy country-wide, and to educate those who believe it will just hurt businesses. He speaks at numerous events and conferences, for women’s organizations and businesses alike, sharing the stories of men who have not had the opportunity like this to speak up before.
“The Miami Herald published an article in which they asked CEOs in Florida if paternity leave should exist,” he shared. “Most responded no, and some responded only if the woman is physically incapacitated in some way. We need to reach out to these leaders and educate them on what actually happens when paternity leave and paid family leave are introduced.”
Levs has even partnered with Dove Men+Care in a sponsored post on Medium to bring people the story of ex-White Sox first baseman Adam LaRoche. He decided to retire, leaving behind a $13 million contract, because of new rules in the clubhouse mandating that his son could no longer be present at practice.
To say this is an uphill battle is an understatement, but that doesn’t mean the movement hasn’t had hard-fought wins or is devoid of hope.
“The reception I’m getting is so much better than everyone expected,” Levs said. “Businesses, government groups, all kinds of conferences keep inviting me to talk. Many people are waking up to this new reality that men are just as capable parents as women—it’s eye-opening for everyone.
“I say yes to as many of these opportunities as I can. When you have a better policy in place, the culture starts to shift. And with top-down support of this policy in organizations, there’s a lot of reason for hope that we’re on the right track.”