22/04/2015 05:54 BST | Updated 21/06/2015 06:12 BST

Should Dads Be Forced To Take Paternity Leave?

Father holding baby girl

Two-and-a-half years after Australia's government offered a parental leave programme for new mums and dads, just one father for every 500 mothers is taking it.
In the US, 96) of dads choose not to take the paternity leave offered.
Here's an idea – let's force dads to take paternity leave.

It would certainly make them better dads, believes Gabrielle Jackson, who put forward the argument in the Guardian newspaper this month. Nobody is suggesting that dads who don't take paternity leave are bad fathers. But the more time they take off, the more fulfilment they get from their relationship with their baby and the more likely they are to remain involved in childcare after they've gone back to work.

As for any cynics who argue a baby needs their mums more, a study by Bar Ilan University last year showed there's absolutely nothing inherent about women that makes us better parents.

Mums develop neural pathways in their brains that make them more responsive to emotional cues in their children when they are primary caregivers, according to the study – but, crucially, the same pathways were found to develop in fathers who were the primary caregiver.

In other words, the amount of time spent alone caring for a child is what enables men and women to become instinctively great parents. So it follows that when fathers take more than minimal time off work after their child is born, they are more likely to naturally develop these parenting instincts.

"That's certainly what happened with us," says Suzanne Watson, whose son is now a year old. "My partner was the only one out of seven couples in our NCT group who took a lot of time off when our son was born and it was obvious that he was far better than the other dads at knowing how to properly wind his child, what to do when he cried and how to best get him to sleep. He is also clearly closer to our son than these other dads are to theirs, as well as being more involved in his life generally."

Workplaces would also benefit from more men taking paternity leave. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of the gender consulting firm 20-first, points out that as it is, corporate efforts at getting more women on boards tend to focus on trying to 'fix' women.

"Take coaching for women, mentoring for women and women's networks – all common examples. If you scratch below the surface, you usually find they're aimed at getting women to adopt more masculine traits, which is ineffective, unsustainable and ultimately puts the next generation of women off, thereby causing a retention problem."

Companies that genuinely succeed in gender balance do so because they take a step back and look at the flaws of their whole mindset when it comes to gender, she says. "It's about managing parental leave by getting men to take it too. It's about not talking about 'women and children' but 'family obligations'," she says.

Indeed, there would be an inevitable ripple effect if more men took paternity leave, she believes. After all, if dads who take paternity leave are more involved dads throughout the child's life, workplace flexibility stops being a 'women's issue' and becomes an issue for everyone, which can only be good.

"Imagine a world in which it was acceptable for men to rush back for childcare ending at 6pm and to take their kid to Brownies every week," says Lucy Jameson, mother of two, who works in HR. "It wouldn't just be better for men, but it would take the pressure off women too."

Employers themselves would be at an advantage too, argues Jameson, as men report greater work satisfaction in countries where they are more likely to take paternity leave.

As it is, she says, most men don't take paternity leave because their careers will suffer, with research showing that men earn less when they take it and are more likely to suffer workplace harassment or discrimination.

"If men are slow to take up paternity leave, maybe it isn't just fathers who should be under the spotlight, but employers," agrees Caroline Gatrell, professor of management studies at Lancaster University.

"Despite policy changes encouraging men to be 'involved' with child care, organisational attitudes are often still stuck in the past. Even fathers working for employers with enlightened paternity policies can still face assumptions from line managers that men don't want to (or shouldn't) take time off to bring up children."

Home life would be better too, if this more equal workplace were a reality, argues Jackson.
Indeed, studies show that where both the man and woman works, there is greater marriage satisfaction and lower rates of divorce. As Jackson says, "Betty Homemaker is out, Brangelina is in."

And in households where dads take paternity leave, the overall time kids have with their parents increases, whilst kids with more involved fathers tend to be happier, healthier, do better at school, have greater self-esteem and fewer behavioural problems.

"In families where household chores are shared and dads are involved throughout teenage years, girls are less likely to follow gender-stereotyped career paths and more likely to try new things, and boys are more likely to be involved in egalitarian relationships and less likely to fight," adds Jackson.

"I find that there's a clear split between the families where both parents work and where only the father does in terms of gender stereotyping among our pre-teen children," agrees Christine Morgan, who has two daughters aged 11 and 12.

Finally, says Jackson, more men taking paternity leave would lead to more sex! "In a recent US study, more egalitarian couples reported having more sex, and better sex, than conventional couples where women did the bulk of the housework," she wrote.

What do you think?

More on Parentdish: Who could afford to take a 'Daddy Month'?