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Modern Dads And The Career Risks Of Paternity Leave

A new study finds that fathers who take more than two months of parental leave for the birth of a child see a sharp decrease in promotion opportunities and are often asked to go part-time, a scenario all too familiar to women.

Precious moments.
Precious moments.
Flora Wisdorff

BERLIN — A human resources manager for a major automotive group took six months of paternal leave when his first child was born. It won't happen again. If and when the second baby comes along, he'll take no more than two months, if any, he told researchers at the Berlin institute for Social Science.

The HR manager had a particularly bad experience. As soon as he had communicated the duration of his leave, he was given negative performance ratings and was accused of being disloyal, including by his female boss. Other female colleagues indicated to him that it wasn't acceptable for men to take so much time off for the birth of a child.

When he returned from leave, his employer downgraded him to a 30-hour week, 10 fewer than before, and politely suggested that he look for a position elsewhere. His personal assistant already had been transferred to a different division by the time he returned to work. One year later, his situation still hasn't improved.

One in three fathers takes paternity leave

Most fathers say they want to be neither "event daddies" nor "cash cows." And the majority of those contacted for the Berlin Institute study said they suffered no negative career consequences for choosing to take paternity leave. It turns out that it's the duration that makes the difference. Taking more than the usual two months increases the risks.

"Loss of reputation and income are only two of the unpleasant side effects, followed by limited promotion possibilities," the Berlin Institute's new study says.

According to official statistics, the proportion of fathers who take paternity leave of more than two months represents only about 20%, with the rest taking less than two months. And only one in three fathers make use of paid paternal leave months.

Further, the researchers questioned more than 600 people online. Three out of four fathers saw their promotion possibilities unaffected. But, again, this changes with the duration of paternity leave. Among those who took two months, only 16% noticed negative consequences. Among those who took three months or more, it was 27%. The results were confirmed in individual interviews.

No matter whether their companies are considered family-friendly, many fathers see themselves confronted with a restricted field of activity and less responsibility.

"Going on parental leave was like a cut," said one father, a consultant for a major pharmaceutical company who took seven months of parental leave. "When coming back, I had to start over." When his second child came along, he took no more than two months, and for the third baby he skipped parental leave entirely. He and his wife returned to the classic roles with the male as breadwinner.

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Balancing baby and work — Photo: Daquella Manera

Those who have genuine support from their direct superiors when taking parental leave experience fewer difficulties when returning to the office. Among those who don't have that kind of rapport, 24% report a permanent deterioration of their professional situation.

Even today, many fathers have to deal with negative reactions from their superiors when take time off for the birth of a child: 31% of those who take between one and two months report negative experiences. Among those taking three months or more, 36% experienced rejection, at least in the beginning.

The more difficult it is to replace someone temporarily, the worse the superior's reaction. Even companies with internal policies concerning work-life balance might not include particularly understanding supervisors. "Family-oriented" doesn't necessarily mean "father-oriented."

According to the study, most superiors act in line with their own point of view, principles and personal view of masculinity, before the company's policy takes effect. One interviewee confirms "it clearly depends on the superior's way of life."

Those who decide to reduce their working hours after children come along — according to the study, one in five men does — run the risk of being trapped in the "part-time-solution," just like so many of their female counterparts. It's a common problem for women but something men are only starting to realize.

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