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When It Comes to Paternity Leave, Do Your Beliefs and Behavior Line Up?

Paternity leave helps even the playing field and is good for gender equality, so why aren’t mothers more welcoming to men who take time off?

By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

What’s one of the best ways to even the playing field at work and help more women reach their potential? Yup, leaning in is important, but its not just the ladies that need to do it.

Fathers need to “lean in” to diaper duty as well, argued a recent New York Times article that claims pushing paternity leave is a huge step towards helping women get ahead at work.

“In order to prescribe policies that really allow female workers to “lean in” at work, social scientists are trying to find ones that recast social norms and encourage male workers to “lean in” at home. One area where there seems to be a lot of potential is paternity leave, which still has a stigma in both the United States and Europe,” writes Catherine Rampell.

Which is interesting in theory, but if you’re curious just how that stigma gets communicated in practice and what the lived experience of being an ambitious guy out on paternity leave is like, check out a recent, thought-provoking post by Facebook’s Tom Stocky. Facebook has generous paternity leave (go, Facebook!) and so Stocky took four months out to be with his baby daughter (go, Stocky!), but while the experience had its joys, it also had its troubles. He writes:

In some ways people said to me what they didn’t feel permitted to say to women. Would my project still be there when I got back? Wouldn’t my ambitious coworkers use this as an opportunity (maliciously or not) to advance themselves at my expense? Wouldn’t I be viewed as being less committed to my work, thus stunting my own advancement for the foreseeable future?

But it wasn’t just impolitic if revealing comments that complicated Stocky’s stint as a stay-at-home dad, he also notes that,

Most of the parent groups were called “mommy groups”… The parenting websites and parent/child classes were mostly targeted to moms, too… I didn’t like being the only dad at the playground, getting cautiously eyed as moms pulled their kids a bit closer.

His complaints don’t end there. “What I never got used to was the double-standard for fathers when it comes to childcare,” he goes on to say, explaining:

I experienced it predominantly in three forms: (1) low expectations for fathers, (2) negative perceptions of working mothers, and (3) negative perceptions of “non-working” fathers…

An example of #1 is the ridiculous praise I often get for changing a diaper or buying groceries with my daughter… #2 includes the back-handed compliments I received dozens of times over the past few months. “Your wife must work so hard. That’s great that you’re able to pick up the slack.” Has someone ever said that to a woman?

#3 is really a variation on #2, though it usually came in the form of an assumption (“Does your wife have the day off today?”) then a correction (“No, I take care of our daughter during the day.”) that usually left the person at a loss for words.

Stocky’s description of his experience out on paternity leave make for interesting sociology, surfacing expectations and biases we rarely explicitly acknowledge and discuss, but it’s also a bit of a wake up call for career-minded mothers (though certainly both men and women are guilty of many of the insensitivities Stocky mentions).

If we know that paternity leave is good for gender equality, why aren’t we doing a better job of welcoming and supporting fathers when they actually take advantage of it? Why are we suspicious of their motives or their work ethic? And why aren’t we sticking up more for them in conversation and at our companies and welcoming them with open arms at baby-oriented events?

Does your behavior towards stay-at-home dads entirely align with your stated views on paternity leave?

jstillman Jessica Stillman is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @entrylevelrebel.