Protocol | Workplace

Men in tech are still scared of taking paternity leave

Despite the fact that most tech companies offer some sort of paid parental leave, the stigma remains. And it's even stronger for men.

Tweet about men who take paternity leave being "losers"

Gender still plays an important role in how workers approach parental leave.

Image: Twitter, Protocol

The evidence is overwhelming. Paid paternity leave is good for fathers. It's good for mothers. It's good for children. It's even good for the companies that offer the policy.

And yet, men in tech are scared, despite the fact that many tech companies offer generous, paid gender-neutral parental leave policies (even for some hourly workers) — a departure from the realities of most working Americans, almost 80% of whom don't have access to a single day of paid parental leave. Some men are worried that taking extended time off will hurt their careers. Even the ones who do take it are worried that it comes at a cost: that they are giving something up in order to be there for their partners and children, or that their peers will judge them for taking "too much" time off for the birth of a child.

Some of those worries are not unfounded. Last month, Joe Lonsdale, a co-founder of Palantir and notable "Big Man in VC," tweeted a controversial take on the subject: "Wow. Great for fathers to spend time w their kids and support moms, but any man in an important position who takes 6 months of leave for a newborn is a loser. In the old days men had babies and worked harder to provide for their future - that's the correct masculine response."

He dialed back the judgment after the inevitable pile-on. But what's clear is that he's not alone in his sentiments, maybe just in his willingness to air them so boldly in the face of public derision.

To be fair, parents of all genders report the fear that taking leave might set them back in their careers, but Lonsdale's tweet calling fathers who take paternity leave "losers" suggests that gender still plays an important role in how workers approach parental leave. Lonsdale's venture capital firm, 8VC, did not respond to a request for comment.

Protocol spoke to men across the tech industry about their decisions to take (or not take) paternity leave and the evolving but still fraught culture around it. The consensus: While gender-neutral parental leave is becoming more accepted and even touted publicly, behind closed doors, the industry is still far away from a place where everyone feels willing and able to take as much time as they need for their families.

'Privately, people still have concerns, there's no question'

Patrick Connelly is a senior director of brand and strategy at Lively, an HSA platform. He took 12 weeks of paid leave in 2020 when his daughter was born, and he was the first person at this firm to utilize its paternity leave benefit.

According to Connelly, while friends and co-workers have been very supportive of his decision to take leave, in his view, "Privately, people still have concerns, there's no question." Recently, one of his male friends who works at a large public tech company told Connelly that he worried he would have to either limit his leave or break it up so that he wouldn't be out for more than two or three weeks at a time, even though the company's policy is generous on paper. His sentiments mirror the story of tech workers who work for companies with unlimited PTO benefits: good on paper, but underutilized when the workplace culture doesn't support time off in practice.

Connelly's friend and others like him are concerned about "being left behind," Connelly said, and that they'll lose their "sphere of influence" while on leave. Despite companies from Netflix to Amazon offering unprecedented levels of parental leave benefits, tech workers still feel like utilizing the benefit would mean "giving something up."

Connelly felt that taking 12 weeks off, a relative privilege compared to most American workers, was a choice he had to make. Although it meant he had to catch up upon his return with "a pretty aggressive mentality," he did it because "getting those early moments with my daughter was something that was very important to me and more important than my job."

For Louis Maresca, a principal software engineering manager at Microsoft, the decision to take paternity leave has been a gradual evolution. The nearly 20-year Microsoft veteran has five children, all of whom were born during his tenure at the tech giant.

Although Microsoft offered 12 weeks of paid parental leave at the time, he didn't take any time off for the birth of his first child in 2010. "I was kind of a go-getter, trying to make my name in the company," Maresca said. His worry? "That I would lose my place" after so much time away. Maresca didn't even tell anyone on his team that his wife was pregnant. His colleagues didn't even know that he was married. His reasoning at the time was that he didn't want them to think "that I had distractions that were causing me to fall short."

"In retrospect, I feel like I should have," he said, especially now that he has had the experience of time off with his two youngest children. His fourth child, Joseph, can read and understand him better than the other kids, which Maresca attributes to the fact that he took the full 12 weeks of parental leave. "He's always looking for me, and he understands when I'm upset or not," Maresca said. His youngest son, Michael, will only let Dad put him to bed at night, no one else.

It's clear to Maresca that his relationship with these children is different than the one he has with his older kids, and taking the full paid leave is what made the difference. But he only felt comfortable taking that time off because by this point in his career, he was already established as a leader within Microsoft and felt confident in his position within the company, which wasn't necessarily the case when he was younger. "I've proven myself. I bring a lot of impact to the company, so I don't have to worry that someone will step in and take away my value," he said.

According to Fred Thiele, Microsoft's VP of Global Benefits and Mobility, "Male employees at Microsoft are nearly on par with their female counterparts in rates of utilization of our parental leave." Netflix did not have any data to share around utilization rates of its parental leave benefits, according to a spokesperson. Meta also did not share any details around its parental leave benefits' utilization rates. Amazon, Apple and Google did not respond to requests for comment on usage of their parental leave policies.

Connelly and Maresca's sentiments about the cultural perceptions around paternity leave were common among the people interviewed. But according to parental leave advocates, dads shouldn't have to be afraid to take paid leave. It's possible for companies to "take a long-term view" and look at the benefits of paternity leave holistically, and not just for the families but also for companies themselves and the bottom line.

According to Amy Beacom, the founder and CEO of the Center for Parental Leave Leadership and the author of "The Parental Leave Playbook," parental leave is a win-win for companies, who spend "billions on experiential learning and leadership programs." Meanwhile, parental leave is "the mother of all experiential learning," and it's already on the calendar and paid for.

When a person goes on leave to care for a new child, they are learning a host of new skills from efficiency to empathy to communication. "If you can manage a toddler's tantrums, you'll never have a problem managing your manager's tantrums," she explained.

According to a 2016 Pew Research study, 69% of Americans support paid leave for fathers, while 82% support paid leave for mothers. Despite the benefits of parental leave, Beacom concurred that there is still a stigma against taking parental leave, especially for men. As a consultant for companies on their parental leave policies, she has worked with more dads than moms who hesitate to take the full amount of leave they have access to. "We live in a culture that actively tells men it is unmanly to take leave, they should be the breadwinner and anything less isn't taking care of their duties," she wrote in an email to Protocol.

Bottom line: It's just harder if you're at a smaller startup

One of the biggest unsolved issues when it comes to parental leave is what happens when the company is smaller. At tiny startups, "there is an expectation of a certain level of velocity and growth that you're supposed to maintain," said Michael Perry, the founder and CEO of Maple, a family tech startup. "Unfortunately, so many founders and investors put such a tremendous pressure on the company to think in such small blocks of time."

"The smaller the company, the greater the responsibility," said Alex Cohen, a director of product at Carbon Health, a health care startup in San Francisco. Cohen took two months of parental leave and plans on taking a third in the new year, maxing out his company's 12-week policy. He said that although he found the sexism in Lonsdale's tweet shocking, he doesn't disagree with his underlying message that six months off is a lot of time, especially for smaller, high-growth startups. "Things aren't going to break" if someone takes that much time off at Netflix, Spotify or Apple, but "we're not there yet," he said of working at a smaller company where things are changing constantly and there might not be a six-month product roadmap.

For him, the time off with his baby son, albeit limited, was undeniably worth it. "He went from not knowing who I was to smiling when he woke up in the morning and saw me. I don't think that would have happened with me working the entire month," he said.

The choice to take leave, however, is much harder for solopreneurs like Atin Batra, founder and general partner of Twenty Seven Ventures, an ed tech VC fund, who is currently on week one of his self-proclaimed six-week paternity leave. The scariest part was pausing deal flow in the middle of one of the most active deal-making environments in recent memory, he said. "To say 'I'm not going to be investing for six weeks' is scary as hell," he said.

Still, "deals will come and go," and, for Batra, "spending time with your newborn son is much more important than one particular deal."

Millennials are more open to it than previous generations

What's also clear is that part of the divide is generational. Workhuman, an 800-person SaaS HR company, has witnessed more than 100 babies born to employees over the last two and a half years. According to CHRO Steve Pemberton, the company's high utilization of its parental leave benefits is because Workhuman's employees are predominantly millennials, who are not only "more open" to parental leave but "expecting" it.

Meanwhile, Cohen said his own father was "confused" and "surprised" when Cohen told him he would be getting 12 weeks off for the birth of his child, and that they would be fully paid. By contrast, his father runs a small chiropractic business, and a woman on his staff recently quit after having a baby because the company had no official paid maternity leave policy.

CEOs have to lead by example — and take leave themselves

When men do take advantage of their paternity leave policies, it's usually because there's a clear signal from leadership that they can and they should.

Despite the fact that corporate America as a whole is still skittish about fathers taking extended time off, Connelly felt able to because both of his company's founders have had children during their time at Lively and took paternity leave, albeit less time than he did. "They have a compassion that might be abnormal in this space," he said, which makes sense given the fact that the company's business model is centered on employee benefits.

Maresca also thinks that, since COVID-19, people have become "more self-aware" about mental health and family health, and "it's a more natural thing" to take time off when having a child. As a manager, instead of asking whether a direct report will take time off for the birth of a child, he asks, "When are you taking time off?"

As a VC, Batra said he was inspired by the leadership of Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who has been very vocal about taking parental leave. He penned an op-ed for The New York Times last year about how critical paternity leave was for his family when his wife, Serena Williams, went through severe health complications after the birth of their child. In Ohanian's view, everyone deserves paid leave, regardless of whether or not they experienced complications.

In response to Lonsdale's tweet, Ohanian himself wrote: "The leave isn't straight, it's flexible. The way we built the plan at @Reddit and @katelin_cruse brought it to @Initialized was so that it would work for families based on what they needed. Need 4 weeks up front and then take off every Friday until you use it? Great."

How to implement a good leave policy: Plan early

For companies that believe in the benefits of paternity leave and want to encourage everyone to take it, the key is to plan for the employee's return in advance. That way the companies don't have to "re-create the wheel each time," Beacom said. Companies should have a transition plan, outline the employee's ongoing projects and decide on ownership and roles in that employee's absence.

Another tip she has for companies: Nix policies that have language around "primary" versus "non-primary" caregivers. That way of divvying up leave time is "outdated" since "there is no primary and secondary caregiver in our country anymore." According to Beacom, this new generation of parents believes in sharing caregiving responsibilities, and the notion of a primary and secondary caregiver only reinforces a gender divide in which one person, often a woman, is upheld as a main parent. Furthermore, that notion doesn't take into consideration other caregivers, like same-sex parents, non-binary parents or adoptive parents.

At the end of the day, offering a competitive parental leave package, at least in the U.S. where it's not universally federally backed, is a hefty business expense, Maple's Perry said. On a 10-person team, one person leaving means 10% of the workforce is gone. Despite the costs, there is no question in his mind that paid parental leave is necessary, however. At Maple, parents can take three full months of paid leave, with four months allowance of leave, and they also receive a $1,000 stipend for the first child and $500 for each additional child. His 10-year goal is to eventually be able to offer one full year of paid parental leave.

As far as utilization, no one has taken advantage of Maple's generous benefits yet. The only person to have had a child since the formation of the year-old company? Perry himself.

"Candidly, I did not take enough time off," he said. The company was launching publicly at the time, and they were fundraising, Perry explained. He ended up taking one week off and then moved into a "lighter work schedule" the following month. "It was a challenging situation."

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