When Chris Renshaw told his co-workers that he was planning to take six weeks of paternity leave, they responded with overwhelming support. “It’s definitely looked at in a good light,” says Renshaw, 28, who lives in Northern California and was taking infant-care classes to hone his diapering and baby-bathing skills. “People have said, ‘That’s a great idea—take as much as you can. It’s time that you can be with your child.’ ”
This would hardly be surprising if Renshaw worked for one of the legions of progressive tech companies in the Bay Area, but he’s a firefighter. His decision to take paternity leave, and his fellow firefighters’ enthusiastic reaction, is a sign of a new phase in our never-ending quest for work-life harmony.
As usual, California is at the vanguard of this shift. While the federal Family and Medical Leave Act has long granted up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to mothers and fathers in large and medium-size workplaces, in 2002 California became the first U.S. state to guarantee six weeks of paid leave for mothers and fathers alike, financed by a small payroll-tax contribution from eligible workers. Since then, Rhode Island and New Jersey have followed suit with four and six paid weeks, respectively, while other states are taking steps toward similar policies.* In Silicon Valley, many tech giants have gone above and beyond the government mandate: Google offers men seven weeks of paid leave; Yahoo, eight; and Reddit and Facebook, a generous 17.
Paternity leave has also begun to enter the corporate and cultural mainstream. According to a study by the Boston College Center for Work and Family, which surveyed men in a number of Fortune 500 companies, most new fathers now take at least some time off after the birth of a baby, though few depart the workplace for more than two weeks. In England, Prince William took two weeks’ leave from his job as a military search-and-rescue helicopter pilot when his son, George, was born. Even Major League Baseball has formalized paternity leave—albeit three days’ worth—for players, partnering with Dove’s line for men in a pro-fatherhood campaign called Big League Dads.
But here’s what men may not realize: While paid paternity leave may feel like an unexpected gift, the biggest beneficiaries aren’t men, or even babies. In the long run, the true beneficiaries of paternity leave are women, and the companies and nations that benefit when women advance.