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Is Paternity Leave the Solution to the Gender Pay Gap?

Eighteen months after naming Cathy Engelbert as its first female CEO, Deloitte instituted a new family leave policy that gave 16 weeks of paid “family leave” to all new parents and caregivers. Left unsaid in the press announcement was that the policy change was aimed, in part, at narrowing the pay gap between men and women at the company. By giving parents an equal amount of leave, regardless of gender, the company was tacitly encouraging employees to split child-rearing duties equally, so mothers wouldn’t fall behind in their careers.

Etsy was more forward about its motivations when it enacted a similar program in March 2016, saying its six months of parental leave were designed to combat “unconscious bias” against women and mothers in the workplace by not forcing them to shoulder a disproportionate amount of parental responsibilities. (Generally speaking, 2016 was a big year for expanded paternity-leave policies as more than a dozen other prominent U.S. companies increased theirs, including American Express, Nike and Twitter.)

Though it’s shrunk significantly in recent decades, the pay gap between men and women in the U.S. persists, largely because of the corresponding discrepancy in parenting duties. Despite their gains in the workplace, working mothers are still doing the bulk of the parenting work at home, a responsibility that limits their upward mobility in the workplace. Many companies have begun to view paternity leave as the key to addressing the pay gap — a policy shift that experts say is helpful, but well short of a panacea.

Fighting the pay gap with paternity leave seems sound on paper. A Pew Research Center study of wage data found that the pay gap between men and women is markedly smaller ($0.07) at the beginning of their careers. (Some recent job website data even shows that among recent college grads, women are outearning men.) But the pay gap widens as men and women age and progress into their child-rearing years, evidently a reflection of the undue pressure on women to raise children — a phenomenon typically referred to as the “care penalty.” (When women don’t have caregiving obligations, their salaries are almost in line with men’s — they earn 5 percent less than their male counterparts.)

But paternity leave alone won’t save us, says Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, a leading authority on the gender pay gap. Goldin points to Sweden, which has a law mandating 480 days (or about two work years) of parental leave for both men and women, but still has an earnings gap. The gap appears after parents have a child and continues throughout the rest of their careers, Goldin says — suggesting that, even when paternity and maternity leave are equal, women are still perceived as being less serious and ambitious about their careers, and punished accordingly.

Goldin, the first woman to receive tenure in the Harvard University economics department, says we can better address the pay gap by enacting flexible work schedules that don’t adhere to rigid 9-to-5 corporate office hours, but instead allow working mothers and fathers to create work weeks that give them time to tend to their families’ specific needs.

Or, of course, we could change social norms that place undue pressure on mothers to stay home and avoid jobs in demanding, high-paying fields—and similar pressure on men to value work above fatherhood. But to that, Goldin merely says, “Good luck.”