Students in Dr. Stephen Sweet’s Sociology of Work and Family course at Ithaca College were encouraged to write editorials on how work-family practices can make sense not only for working families, but also for employers. The blog posts in this “Millennial Voice” series were identified by their instructor and peers as offering strong cases for the business benefits of work-family practices.

Each post is informed by 35 articles read as part of class assignments, as well as an additional 10 to 20 articles independently researched by the authors.  Links to relevant references offer additional exploration for interested readers.

Today’s post was written by Yanilsa Frias. Yanilsa is a Business Administration major with a concentration in Marketing at Ithaca College and is pursuing a career in the banking industry as a financial analyst. Read more from Yanilsa.

Picture yourself talking to a happily married couple expecting a baby. The woman is seven months pregnant and the first thing that pops up in your head is, “When do you plan on taking your maternity leave?” Like many people and even organizations, this immediate response neglects the father’s participation during early childhood development.

Even though nearly all leave policies in the United States are gender-neutral (e.g., “parental leave,” not “maternity leave”), fathers are far less likely to take full advantage of the available options. In part, even though most families are now dual earners, they are most heavily dependent on the earnings provided by fathers.  The reality is that many fathers do not have the option to take leave, or cannot afford to take leave when it is not compensated.

Is there anything employers can do to create more equal use of parental leave policies? And should they?

In 1993 the United States passed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that obligated firms to grant qualified employees a 12-week unpaid, job-protected leave to handle family-related duties. Ostensibly, this Act enabled both parents to partake in the after-birth process. Interestingly enough, Jennifer Swanberg, professor of Social Work found that men have greater access to leave then women. But, the decision for fathers to take leave is not an easy one.

Only about 21 percent of companies offer paid family leave. While most companies are not generous in this respect, some are.  For example, companies such as Yahoo and Facebook offer paid leave for eight and 17 weeks, respectively.

In a 2011 study from the Boston College Center for Work & Family, researchers found that the majority of fathers either took one week off (35 percent) or no time off (16 percent) compared to their female counterparts who reported taking 12-weeks or fewer during their last pregnancy. Though women must recover physically after the childbirth, both men and women suffer similar penalties in the workforce.

These consequences derive in part from organizations using time as a measurement of productivity, which has ultimately created a tension for working fathers as it has for working mothers. The Boston College study reports that 77 percent of fathers reported wanting to spend more quality time with their children on an average workday. Yet fathers are rarely taking leave because they are consumed by their work responsibilities. The work demands and fathers’ desire to advance in their careers constrains their choices, away from their true preferences. Although fathers want to devote the time to their family, the work sphere can sometimes be the greedier of the two institutions.

Women are also faced with readjusting to work life while managing work and family responsibilities. One challenge of returning to work after an extended absence is adapting to organizational changes and meeting the work demands that have accumulated over time. Unfortunately, women’s career patterns are more typically interrupted, and this creates different penalties for them.

Despite the shift in the family domain for many fathers, employers’ expectation of their employees remains constant. According to another report from Boston College, 96 percent of fathers reported that their work continued the same regardless of their parental status. Participants of the study failed to reduce their work hours and some fathers felt that their employers would not support their decision. Fathers feared being laid off or seeming less committed to their career aspirations. While that may not be the case, fathers dwell on that anxiety and prefer to work to avoid the pressures from management.

In order to change the angst that many fathers feel about the prospect of taking leave, companies can create an inclusive workplace culture in a way that will be accepting of the evolving roles and preferences of fathers. Fathers can be just as crucial as mothers in the developmental process of a newborn child. Likewise, company policies should be modified to reflect a true family-friendly environment that will benefit both parents. Employers that encourage the use of parental leave and provide some sort of compensation for it are demonstrating their commitment to their employees. Studies show that companies that prioritize improving the lives of their employees tend to have higher productivity rates, increased employee loyalty and job satisfaction, and a lower turnover rate. By cultivating the relationship between employees and their families, organizations retain valued workers, which can benefit the firm in the long run. Workers who have a positive experience with a firm are likely to speak positively of the company, in turn helping the recruiting process.

Companies should reassure fathers that they are cherished in the organization irrespective of their decision to take parental leave. The organization will benefit by retaining diligent employees. It is likely to be a win-win approach.

photo credit: thinkstockphotos.com