The Road to Gender Equity Is Paved by Paternity Leave

Working in the corporate world for many years, I can’t remember a time when the topic of paternity leave has come up in conversation.

It isn’t something anyone—even male job candidates—talks about, and yet there are a lot of dads who are expecting more from their organization. They expect to be at home after their children are born. They want to bond with their newborns. They want to experience the joys and sorrows of parenting fully.

Yet, as a society, we don’t always make it easy for them to embrace their role as fathers while balancing responsibilities at work. A Deloitte survey found that 57 percent of men said that taking parental leave would be perceived as a lack of commitment to their careers. However, the reality is that, today, it’s perfectly acceptable in many companies for men to leave work to pick up their kids at daycare and for women to be at the helm of major companies. Paternity leave policies need to better reflect this evolution of the times and can help increase the representation of women in leadership. This diversity of thought can help better connect with customers, engage employees, and improve innovation.

What’s important to note here is that policies and laws drive behavior. We make it difficult for dads to just be dads when their children are born. Look at the data: Almost two thirds of the world’s children under age one — nearly 90 million— live in countries where dads are not legally entitled to take paid paternity leave. Forty percent of all countries around the world have a paternity leave policy, though mostly unpaid. U.S. employees are guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid time off by the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, and the U.S. is one of only eight countries with no national law guaranteeing paid parental leave for mothers or fathers.

When governments don’t provide equitable standards, organizations aren’t motivated to do so either. So, the bias that women can be caregivers and men can’t is perpetuated further by company policies. While companies recognize that mothers need significant time to care for a newborn, granting them an average of 41 days of parental leave, fathers get about half of that with an average of 22 days. That difference sends a signal. The result? Fathers feel far less comfortable taking leave. As a 2018 Wall Street Journal U.S. survey found, one third of male participants feared they would be putting their careers at risk if they took time off to care for their newborn. Many don’t take their full leave – 66 percent of women take all of their available leave while just 36 percent of men use the leave they are granted.

However, organizations are beginning to change these norms. As more families are working families, the market for talent escalates. Companies are recognizing the many advantages of providing more equitable parental leave policies and are doing more to encourage their adoption. At SAP, we’ve embarked on a bold plan to build a practice around parental leave adoption, launching a global communication campaign to dispel myths, increase participation rates, and measure impact.

The first step in encouraging an uptake of paternity leave is getting everyone—parents and non-parents—to understand the benefits to men and women. Personally, more active, engaged fathers have stronger family relationships and are more successful partners. Professionally, paternity leave is associated with improved mental health and well-being for new mothers and new fathers, thus making them happier, productive, engaged employees. We are intentional about creating a more flexible work culture by encouraging adoption of the generous paternity benefits we offer around the world. We believe that this will lead to a more equitable distribution of opportunity and ultimately gender equality in the long term.

An SAP customer, Diageo, is also blazing the trail here. The company just mandated 26 weeks of paid paternity leave. Chief Human Resources Officer Mairéad Nayager stated, “We are committed to creating a fully inclusive and diverse workforce, and we strongly believe that businesses play a significant role in shaping the future of society.”

Culture change takes time, yet when companies, like SAP and Diageo, are determined to act as stewards of change and implement policies to change not only its own company but the world, we can accelerate the pace towards gender equity.


Shuchi Sharma is Gender Intelligence lead at SAP.