Why Is There Such a Stigma Against Men Taking Paternity Leave?

Why Is There Such a Stigma Against Men Taking Paternity Leave?

Serena Williams' husband, Alexis Ohanian, has a strong opinion on it. 

By Marianne Garvey
Alexis Ohanian and Alexis Olympia

Serena Williams’ husband, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, is speaking out about the stigma behind paternity leave.

In an op-ed for The New York Times, he wrote:

“When I was born in 1983, my father took a single day off work. He used a vacation day.

"When my wife, Serena Williams, gave birth to our daughter Olympia in 2017, I took 16 weeks of paid paternity leave — which was the policy at Reddit, the company I co-founded and led at the time.

"Before Olympia was born, I had never thought much about paternity leave and, to be honest, Reddit’s company policy was not my idea. Our vice president of people and culture, Katelin Holloway, brought it up to me in a meeting and it sounded O.K., so why not?

"Then came Olympia, after near-fatal complcations forced my wife, Serena, to undergo an emergency C-section. Serena spent days in recovery fighting for her life against pulmonary embolisms. When we came home with our baby girl, Serena had a hole in her abdomen that needed bandage changes daily. She was on medication. She couldn’t walk.”

Ohanian recognized the privilege his family has, but says, even so, with his “ability to focus solely on my family and not worry about keeping my job, it was still incredibly difficult.”

He cited, “Only 9 percent of work sites in the United States offer paid paternity leave to all male employees, and 76 percent of fathers  are back to work within a week after the birth or adoption of a child.”

He blames our work-all-the-time culture and says since men are conditioned to be breadwinners, taking time off after a baby has a stigma attached to it.

Ohanian was proud of the 16 weeks he took off to be with his family.

New York City-based psychotherapist Tanya Koifman, LCSW, explained to Personal Space how rigid and sexist gender stereotypes and expectations that exist in our society are very harmful to families.

“While we have evolved somewhat as a society around this topic, it is still all too ingrained in our society and we have a lot of work to do around it,” Koifman said. “The sex that we were assigned at birth still very much dictates what society says about how we should look, walk, talk, behave, our choices related to work, how we should handle parenting, etc. It can take people a long time to undo the effects of all these expectations.”

She continued:

“Unfortunately, many children from a very young age are exposed to numerous sexist ideas about the world around them. These messages come at them from many places (TV/media, family, interactions in the playground, school, etc. For example, let’s say there is a little boy in first grade, and there is a go-around in his class, where the teacher asks what they look forward to doing when they grow up, and he enthusiastically answers that he love babies – that he wants to be a parent/take care of his baby when he grows up. There is a significant chance that (even in 2019) other kids may laugh at him, say things like, ‘That is what girls do,’ and the teacher might even make negative comments about it. This would be one of the early or deeply-engrained messages for this little boy, that being home with and taking care of a baby is not something that boys do, and even begin to feel shame about it. Boys tend to get a lot of similar (negative) responses from people if they say things like their favorite color is pink, or if their role model is not a cis/het man. A lot of girls also get similar messages when they prefer things that are stereotypically seen as ‘boy things.’”

Unfortunately, these messages also shape sexist and gender non-inclusive laws and business practices. Koifman explained, “The notion that fathers are not interested in being involved in family life, and in the raising of their children is clearly a very damaging and untrue stereotype. I agree with Alexis Ohanian, in his statement that, ‘No dad should feel forced to wholly prioritize work over family at a time as important as the arrival of a new baby.’

"I would just change that to no ‘parent’ should feel forced to wholly prioritize work over family at a time as important as the arrival of a new baby. I also completely agree with his statement about ‘needing a federal bill that mandates quality paid family leave for everyone — birth parents, adoptive parents and caregivers alike.’

“A big part of the problem lies in the gendered language: When parental leave is gendered, and divided into ‘maternity’ or ‘paternity’ leave, it is harmful. These kinds of policies outright exclude and provide less benefits or resources to many different kinds of families, like families with non-binary parents, non-gestational parents, etc.”

Koifman added, “What does it say about our society if we ask people to choose between their jobs and their families?”

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