Pin the Blame on Daddy? The Precarious Future of Parental Leave

June 7, 2013, 2:17 pm

Those menz! Always finding another way to game the system!

Thank heavens for research that catches them at their dastardly game. A collaborative study by a father and son team, Steven E. Rhoads (UVA) and Christopher Rhoads (UConn), argue that paternity leave allows men to jump the gender queue by giving them a chance to write while their wives actually take care of the babies. A brilliant scheme to maintain gender inequality, no? As reported last year in Bloomberg News, Team Rhoads argues that fathers of newborns would rather work than parent:

While 69 percent of the women in the sample took post-birth parental leave, only 12 percent of the men took advantage of the available leave—even though it was paid. They also learned that the male professors who did so performed significantly less child care relative to their spouses. Worse yet, they report that male tenure-track professors may be abusing paternity leave by using the time to complete research or publish papers, an activity that enhances their careers while putting their female colleagues at a disadvantage. One female participant quoted in the study put it this way: “If women and men are both granted parental leaves and women recover/nurse/do primary care and men do some care and finish articles, there’s a problem.”

The study recommends, therefore, that in the interests of gender equality universities restrict parental leaves to women. Download the unpublished paper here.

So I’m just going to come out and say it: I don’t believe it, particularly since the sample group had only 181 subjects, which means we are talking about fewer than 18 men who may have exclusively pursued a publishing agenda while pretending to care for a baby. The research seems even more worth of scrutiny when you realize that Steven Rhoads’ parenting and marriage scholarship repeatedly comes to conclusions that are gender essentialist.

As he argues on his own website, if men and women were to accept their gender destiny, life might be disappointing — but it would be less stressful:

Understanding sex differences can bring a ceasefire in the gender wars. Once we can see that our romantic partners are fundamentally different on the inside as well as out, we will be less likely to expect them to be like all our same-sex friends. Husbands, for example, will see that women in general — not just “their crazy wife” — like to talk about problems that have no solution, and wives will see that most husbands — not just their’s — don’t care about the messes they leave in their wake and often don’t see them.

This is followed by other categorical statements related to parenting: “Mothers are worriers” while fathers, hearing the same baby cry, “are more likely to be annoyed than concerned [.]”

When fathers (who, the research establishes, become deaf and blind as soon as they enter the home) “take leave and express a desire to be the primary caretakers of their new infants, the traditional parenting differences emerge” because “[m]others are world-class nurturers of infants and toddlers, and they like to do every part of the care more.” Things women really dig doing are “caring for the child when sick, buying food or toys, even changing diapers. Even women academics with egalitarian gender attitudes like all parts of care more than their husbands.” And guess what? “Infants and toddlers prefer moms to dads for every task as well.” In 2005, Rhoads argued at the National Review Online that “the roots of these differences are biological;” by that, he meant hormonal.

This took me back — way back — to a moment in my former life when a male colleague asked for parental leave, was denied it (as he had birthed no baby), and threatened to file a sex discrimination case.  Realizing that theirs was a discriminatory policy, the university proposed to create gender equity by eliminating parental leave altogether.

This ignited an uproar among the women faculty, many of whom had been among the first cohort of feminist academics to have been hired by the university, and who had fought for that policy. That said, more than a few resisted extending it to men. A number announced that they were quite sure their male colleagues would use a parental leave to write while their wives actually took care of the baby. However, many of us argued, successfully, that you don’t cure gender discrimination by institutionalizing gender discrimination. In fact, the policy was, in the end, expanded to include men and adoptive parents as well. In the end, the university agreed.

But the appearance of Steven Rhoades’ research in a prominent business magazine should put us on alert, and  suggest that the next piece of low-hanging academic fruit to be cut will be paid parental leave. It might be an easy target too, since it isn’t clear to me that senior faculty have ever fully accepted it in the first place. I am probably not the only person who has heard a younger, female scholar confess that she was informally warned by a colleague or a chair not to have children prior to tenure. I have never heard of a man who received this piece of unwanted advice. Furthermore, university policies are deliberately confusing, leaves are cumbersome to apply for, come with strings attached, or are limited to a period of time that has no relationship to the teaching schedule.

Historiann reported on this back in 201o. A brief trip around the web will show you that, as of 2013:

  • The University of Texas “does not have a separate maternity leave policy,” and requires a doctor’s note asserting “that the incapacity [of pregnancy and/or motherhood] causes the employee to be unable to work.”
  • Columbia University only gives “parental workload relief” to a “primary caregiver,” requires the person receiving it to continue doing some work for the university, and expects that research will continue during the leave.
  • At Dickinson College,  mothers who designate themselves as the primary caregivers can get 12 weeks (or close to one term) by pinning a 6-week medical leave to a 6 week pregnancy leave. The policy discriminates between those who “birth” and those who adopt children; and offers only three weeks of leave to the non-birthing, non-primary parent.

I suspect that a great many university parental leave policies, including the ones above, might be challenged under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. FMLA entitles employees in a workplace of 50 or more, and who have been in the job for a year, to twelve weeks of leave within twelve months of a birth or adoption. While it doesn’t mandate that you be paid, it doesn’t say you have to come in to advise senior honors’ theses, or serve on committees, or that you can only take a fraction of the time if you didn’t give birth. It is unlikely, however, that faculty who want to keep their heads down and get tenure will want to be at the center of a major federal lawsuit.

Readers, what are your views on parental leave? Did you have one? What have you found you were able to do — or not do — with a new baby in the house? And those of you out there who are, like me, childless: what do you think are the merits of parental leave?

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