A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

To achieve gender equality, we need to support men as caregivers

5 min
A father changes the diaper of his child.
Getty Images
A crucial part of the fight for gender equality has long stayed in the shadows: support for men as caregivers. In the United States and much of the world, laws, policies, and stigmas still push women to be caregivers and prevent men from having the option.

Take, for example, this finding from the new State of the World’s Fathers report: “Fewer than half of the world’s countries (48 percent) offer paid paternity leave on the birth of a child, and often this is less than three weeks—or sometimes only a few days.” The United States offers none. The report includes data from the Helping Dads Care Research Project produced by Dove Men+Care—a company I partner with to advance these issues—and Promundo. We released it at the Women Deliver conference shortly before Father’s Day.
The vast majority of dads surveyed across seven countries say they would be “willing to do anything to be very involved in the early weeks and months of caring for their newly born or adopted child.”
The State of the World's Fathers

The vast majority (85 percent) of dads surveyed across seven countries, including the United States, say they would be “willing to do anything to be very involved in the early weeks and months of caring for their newly born or adopted child.” But men and women agree that “attitudes among colleagues and managers often leave fathers unable to ask” for leave, even when it’s offered. As I reported in my book, All In, men have been fired or demoted for taking paternity leave.

In addition to stigma, the State of the World’s Fathers report shows that financial stress is one of the main reasons that both women and men don’t take as much parental leave as they would like.

In the U.S., where only 29 percent of businesses now offer paid paternity leave, 57 percent of fathers cite financial barriers as the primary reason they couldn’t take more time off to care for their newborns or newly adopted children.

I began my study of global paternity leave policies following my family’s experience. When my wife was pregnant with our third child, we knew I’d be needed at home for caregiving after the birth. The policies I was under (at CNN, part of Time Warner) allowed 10 weeks of paid leave for anyone after having a new child—except a biological father, who could get only two weeks. (In a statement at the time, I explained this in detail.)
When my efforts to change this internally failed, I took legal action and launched a public battle, which garnered all sorts of media coverage. Ultimately, the company revolutionized its policy, creating a win-win.

In the course of learning all I could about what families are going through, I came to see that a crucial part of the solution is paid family and medical leave.

Currently, only 17 percent of workers have paid family leave through their jobs, which the U.S. government defines as “leave to care for a newborn child, an adopted child, a sick child, or a sick adult relative.” But a growing number of states are providing paid family leave through insurance-based systems.

Workers, and in some cases, businesses, make tiny contributions to a fund through payroll deductions. When a worker needs this leave to care for a loved one or to recover from illness themselves, they receive pay from the fund. The results are fantastic: business profits are up, and more women and men remain in the workforce. Most importantly, families and children benefit. Many moms in these states now finally have paid maternity leave. Fathers take paternity leave in greater numbers and for longer blocks of time.

We need this nationally. It’s time we ensure that parents can be home with a child without sacrificing the ability to put food on the table, and that all working people can care for loved ones (and get critical care themselves) in times of need.

That’s why my push for paid leave didn’t stop after my own experience. I now advocate across the country and around the world, including at the United Nations and on Capitol Hill. And I encourage other men and fathers to do the same.
Only 17% of U.S. workers have paid family leave through their employers.
Josh Levs delivers remarks supporting paid family leave at the U.N.
Josh Levs speaks at the U.N. on gender equality
It’s going to take all of us to drive the national-level policy changes families and businesses need. But along with policies, we also need culture change. As the State of the World’s Fathers report notes, even where supportive policies exist around the world, “traditional ideas that women are the default caregivers persist.” In the United States, the longer we deny fathers the paid time off they need and want to care for their families, the harder it will be to change ingrained gender attitudes.

The data is clearly telling us that to achieve gender equality, we must support men as caregivers—in workplaces, through public policies like paid leave, and in society overall. It is past time to listen to it, and to support all the men who want to take on an equal share of the care.