Post written by Solmaz Spence
In almost half of two-parent households in the United States, both parents work full-time. Yet when a baby is born, it is still new moms who take the most time off work. On average, new mothers take 11 weeks off work while new dads take just one week, according to a 2016 survey carried out by the Pew Research Center.
In part, that is because many new fathers in the U.S. don’t have access to paid paternity leave. Paid maternity leave is rare, too: in fact, the U.S. is the only developed nation that does not provide a national paid family leave program to new parents.
Only three states (California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) have their own paid parental leave policies, as do some companies. In Silicon Valley, tech giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter offer gender-neutral paid parental leave policies that can be taken by new moms, dads, and adoptive parents. But that’s not the norm. According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2016 Employee Benefits research report, only 18 percent of U.S. organizations offer paid maternity leave, 12 percent provide paid paternity leave, and 17 percent have a paid parental leave plan that can be taken by either parent.
More commonly, birth moms with short-term disability insurance receive some pay for six to eight weeks following childbirth. If new moms want to take more time, or if dads, adoptive parents, or moms who didn’t give birth themselves want time off to bond with a new baby, those eligible under the Family and Medical Leave Act can take unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks.
But even if new fathers had access to parental leave programs, they might not take advantage of them. A survey by Deloitte found that 36 percent of men would not take advantage of their paid parental leave benefits because they worried it might jeopardize their position at work. And parental leave programs that offer more benefits to moms than to dads only reinforce the stereotype of the female caregiver and male breadwinner.
How is support for parental leave policies structured by attitudes about traditional gender roles? To assess this relationship, a team of researchers including Stuart Soroka, faculty associate at the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies, along with Allison Harell, Shanto Iyengar and Valérie Lapointe, surveyed 3600 people across Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The results of the survey* were recently published as a chapter in the book, Mothers and Others: The Role of Parenthood in Politics.
The authors came to the study with mixed expectations for how gender role ideologies would influence support for parental leave. On the one hand, because parental leave programs give working mothers time at home after the birth of a child, they can help new moms balance work and motherhood—a struggle that is at the heart of traditional gender role ideology.
On the other hand, women must be employed to access maternity leave benefits, and the central goal of these policies is for women to return to their careers—facts that could conflict with conservative gender role attitudes.
Expanding parental leave to new fathers also has the potential to make men more involved in childcare, women more engaged in their careers, and workplaces friendlier for parents of all kinds. Thus, those holding more traditional views might be less supportive of parental leave policies that can be applied to male recipients.
This study assessed gender role ideology by asking participants how strongly they agreed or disagreed with four statements related to women’s roles in the home and as mothers:
- A woman’s place is in the home, not in the office or shop.
- A mother who carries out her full family responsibilities doesn’t have time for outside employment.
- The employment of mothers leads to more juvenile delinquency.
- Women are much happier if they stay at home and take care of their children.
In general, respondents rejected the view that a woman’s employment is detrimental to her perceived duty at home—but there were clear variations in responses. Largely in line with expectations, demographic factors such as being female, having a university education, and being employed were associated with more liberal views; those who are married, have children, and are older had more conservative views.
Next, the researchers investigated whether citizens are more or less generous toward parental leave takers based upon their gender role attitudes as well as the gender stereotypicality of the leave takers.
The researchers presented survey participants with fictional stories that described the situation of several potential parental leave takers: a married female, a single female, a married male, a single male. In each case, respondents were told the amount of leave to which the new parent is entitled in their country, and were asked how much he or she thinks the recipient should receive in monetary benefits.
Across all respondents, there was strong support for more stereotypical leave takers, with respondents opting to give the female parents in the fictional situations about $175 more in benefits than the male parents. The marital status of the leave taker was also important, with married leave takers receiving about $70 more than single parents—despite the fact that one might assume that single parents would be more in need of state support. There thus was a general tendency to enforce gender norms in terms of who benefits from family leave policies.
This figure shows the relationship between gender role attitudes (plotted on the x axis), and cash support for parental leave policy (show on the y-axis). Across all respondents in the U.S., UK and Canada, support is strongest for more stereotypical leave takers (married females), and least generous for single men.
That said, the researchers found that those who hold more conservative gender role attitudes in the UK and U.S. tended to be less generous toward leave takers overall. Among US survey participants in particular, those with the most conservative gender role attitudes reported giving the fictional recipients about $124 less than respondents who held more progressive attitudes. This was after controlling for the characteristics of the fictional leave takers, and also for the ideological orientation of the respondent with respect to government benefits.
Moreover, those with more traditional gender norms tended to be particularly punitive to non-stereotypical leave takers. (This is clear in the figure above.) The most conservative respondents reported giving single male recipients about $330 less than they would give to married women leave takers. In contrast, for respondents with more progressive gender role ideology, the difference in benefits between married women and single men was about $230.
These results highlight a good deal of complexity in the structure of support for parental leave policy. It is not necessarily the case that women are more supportive of parental leave policy than men, for instance. Although women are more likely to reject traditional gender roles, women who are married with children tend to believe more strongly in the gendered division of parenthood, and thus, are less willing to extend parental leave benefits to men. In the U.S., and also Canada and the UK, support for parental leave policy reflects a set of complex and often counteracting ideas about gender, parenting, and work.
*Race, Gender, and the Welfare State survey (RGWS)