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Paternity Leave and Women

Posted on October 4th, 2016 by in Chemical R&D


Paid leave for child care, be it maternity leave, paternity leave or the more general family leave, is becoming an increasingly important issue in America. Maternity leave is certainly important, I argue necessary, as a means to aid mothers and families to provide what is best for their careers and their family’s growth.But, in a time when we as a country are making strides to improve women’s place in the workforce to the equality they deserve, an overlooked benefit (again, I argue, a necessary benefit) is paid paternity leave.

Recently I gave a talk about diversity in the chemicals industry at the Women’s Chemist Committee breakfast at the American Chemical Society meeting. My talk covered a number of topics, but one area that resonated with almost everyone attending, and one that I am particularly passionate about, is the issue of paternity leave. The issue of caring for children is not solely a chemical industry issue, but, given the gender imbalance in the chemical industry, particularly in leadership positions, policies around paternity leave and how they affect women in the workplace are critically important.

So, why does paternity leave matter for gender diversity? Recent survey responses show that adequately balancing career and home life is a top concern for 50% of men and 56% of women, indicating this is an important issue to both genders. However, actual data shows large discrepancies between what people say and what they do. Mothers of newborns take, on average, 10 weeks off after having a child, but fathers of newborns only take an average of two weeks of leave and only 12% of companies report offering any paid paternity leave. There are many reasons for this discrepancy, and my focus here is to discuss two of those issues: availability of paternity leave and expectations.

The data on how much less leave men take compared to women shows that, while stated priorities are nearly identical, priorities in practice vary widely by gender. Many reasons exist for this discrepancy – income level, availability of leave, societal/gender expectations, etc. – and each of these issues needs to be addressed. One of the main issues at stake here, and one I discussed at length in my talk at ACS, is that of expectations. Society expects women to take time off work and care for kids, and does not expect men to take the same amount of leave. While there is an obvious medical reason for women to need time after having a child, there is no reason men should not be granted the same amount of leave to care for children as women.

Providing women with maternity leave and either not providing men with leave or providing them less leave only furthers the expectations that men should work and women should care for children. While this may be desirable or beneficial for some families, it does not work for all, nor should it be the expectation. Much has been written about how an equal partnership with your spouse on child-rearing is critical for women’s success in the workplace. This was a key point in Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In”. It is simply unrealistic to expect women to shoulder the bulk of the at-home responsibilities while also taking on greater responsibility in their careers. Furthermore, if employers and society do not encourage fathers to take time to care for their children, it only strengthens the expectation that women are primary caregivers and men are primary breadwinners.

In addition to the very simple equation that with a limited number of hours in the day, in order for women to advance equally at work, they need to share the responsibilities at home, there is another reason that it’s important to give and encourage paternity leave. If women are the only employees who leave for weeks at a time during their child-rearing years, it puts them at a disadvantage when compared to their male colleagues who don’t take those absences from work. However, if it becomes the norm that everybody has to balance parental leave times during the formative years of their career, it no longer is just a women’s issue.

Instead of creating policies focusing on how to integrate women after their maternity leave and minimize the disruption in women’s careers, companies would be forced to make those policies applicable to everyone. Managers would not wonder when considering new hires if they will be leaving to take maternity leave during their tenure. It would simply be expected that everyone balances family and career and companies have to accommodate that balance.

I’m not the only one evangelizing the need to offer and support paternity leave in our workplaces. This issue has been addressed in several news outlets (Time, Fortune, etc.). I do believe that this is particularly acute in the chemical industry, where at every step of the ladder women are less represented in leadership. Starting from the degrees awarded in chemistry and chemical engineering all the way up to the CEO level, women are a minority. Research has shown that gender diverse teams perform better, particularly in complex problem-solving situations like those that so often appear in the chemicals industry. Given those facts, it is imperative that, as an industry, we find a way to attract, retain and promote more women. Providing and supporting paid paternity leave is a key way that we can achieve those goals.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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