Dear Mr. Dad: My wife is due with our first in about four months, so I though now would be a good time to talk to my employer about taking time off under the Family Leave Act and possibly making some more permanent changes to my schedule so I can be a more hands-on dad. I mentioned this to a friend who used to work with me, and he warned me to be very careful. He said that after he took paternity leave, he was passed over for a promotion and got a smaller bonus. He eventually quit. I find that hard to believe, but he insists it’s true. Are companies really allowed to do that?
A. Theoretically, no. Under the federal version of Family and Medical Leave Act, your job is protected and your employer isn’t allowed to penalize you in any way. (Some states have their own programs and the rules may be different, so I encourage you to look into both.) Unfortunately, there’s sometimes a big disconnect between what companies are allowed to do what they actually do. And even if the company itself does everything by the book, individuals within the company – meaning your managers and co-workers – can always find a way to skirt the law.
It sounds like your friend had an unpleasant encounter with what researchers are now calling the “flexibility stigma.” In some societies, being the provider is central to men’s identity, in much the same way as being the nurturer is ingrained in women’s identity. In other words, we equate working with masculinity and caring for children with femininity.
Here’s where things get complicated. When a man requests family leave, he’s no longer behaving the way some employers feel men are “supposed” to. As a result, the people around him start to see him as more feminine and less masculine, according to Rutgers University researchers Laurie Rudman and Kris Mescher.
Rudman, Mescher and another team of researchers led by Joseph Vandello at the University of South Florida found that the penalties men pay for asking for family leave are pretty heavy. They’re seen as not serious about their jobs, they get lower evaluations from co-workers and managers, and, like your friend, they may get passed over for promotions and get smaller raises than male co-workers who act more like “real men” and don’t request time off for family reasons.
Some readers will point out that women have been dealing with a flexibility stigma for years, that they pay a steep financial price when they move from the fast track to the mommy track. That’s absolutely true, and corporate America should be ashamed. But according to Scott Coltrane and his colleagues at the University of Oregon, “Men who leave the workforce for family reasons can expect to earn 26.4 percent less later in their careers than they would have had they never left the workforce. Women face a 23.3 percent financial penalty.”
Now that you know what you may be up against, the big question is what can you do to get what you want? The most effective approach is to tell your boss your plan and propose some metrics you can use to evaluate whether the changes you’re proposing are working for you and the company. If you get any pushback, point out that companies with family-friendly policies have happier, more productive, more loyal employees and higher shareholder return than less-family companies in the same sector. It’s really hard to argue with that.