Skip to main content

When my son was much younger, he informed me that he might not want children. When I asked him why and he responded that if he pursued his chosen career – as a ninja – then it might not offer the best environment to raise kids.

I respected his logic. He has since grown out of his ninja phase but I'm delighted that he understands that combining a demanding career with a fulfilling home life can be fraught with challenges.

I'm not alone in presenting this perspective to my son, yet that message to boys – that work and children may conflict – appears to wane as they age. The role of men as primary caregivers of children, especially in those demanding early years, still seems like a luxury.

That message hit home last week, when a savvy MBA student attending the Rotman School of Management's Women in Management Association's end-of-year dinner reminded me that there are no "men's groups" where male students can discuss such issues. She believes her male cohorts don't even think about the impact their family life will have on their career. If the expectation persists that men don't share equally at home, then women will continue to bear the career cost of having children.

That would change if men needed to consider when to take paternal leave in the same way women fret about the best time to take maternity leave. In other words, establish a "daddy quota." A little social engineering can go a long way in changing our cultural perspective on who stays home to raise the kids.

Rather than focusing on ways to bring women back into the work force after having children, it's worth exploring how to provide incentives for men to step out.

In Norway, fathers receive 12 weeks of paternity leave that is non-transferable to the mother: dads must "use it or lose it." In Sweden, fathers get about eight weeks of non-transferable paternity leave. In Quebec, they get five weeks. In other countries, such the United Kingdom, dads enjoy two weeks of paternity leave with the government considering extending it.

"Daddy quotas" carry a lingering, positive impact on fathers. A study by Ankita Patnaik, a doctoral student at Cornell University, found that men who took advantage of parental leave spent more time on child care and domestic obligations even years later. And their female partners spent more time working outside the home.

Ms. Patnaik explained the results by suggesting that after the birth of a child, a couple must "renegotiate" their division of labour and any new patterns established in this critical time becomes their accepted practice. Also, the experience of caring for a newborn raises men's skills and comfort levels with their child, which may result in stronger father-child attachments.

Warren Farrell, author of Father and Child Reunion: How to Bring the Dads We Need to the Children We Love, discovered many other positive results stemming from a use it or lose it approach to paternity leave. He notes that since Sweden adopted "daddy leave" in 1995, divorce rates have declined, while pay for women increased (as did instances of shared custody).

Yet Dr. Farrell believes the strategy works only when fathers don't lose more than a small percentage of their pay, as is the case in Sweden. Fathers feel a substantial pressure to financially support their family and would find it challenging to lose a significant amount of income in order for them to care for their children.

The other benefit Dr. Farrell found was the impact on children; according to his book, they are raised more effectively when fathers are primary caregivers. In his view, gender roles are so ingrained that those who willingly buck the trend – such as men who decide to stay home with their children – are already incredibly motivated, so they put that much more effort into it. On average, these self-motivated men are better educated and wealthier than perhaps the average stay at home parent, which means the circumstances in which these children are raised is likely better.

In his mind, this is social evolution at work.

The question remains: Do men want more parental leave? I think they do. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center in the United States showed that fathers are as likely as mothers to say they prefer to stay at home with their children rather than working outside the home. What prevents either parent from staying home comes down to a loss of income.

In North America, the social stigma adds to men's reluctance to stay at home with the kids. Taking any amount of time off that isn't considered strictly necessary seems frowned upon. A daddy quota would remove that social barrier, turning parental leave for fathers into a no-brainer.

"I don't see the problem as being a lack on incentive," said Matt Schneider, founder and co-organizer of NYC Dads Group. "When men start to see their peers, mentors and leaders take paternity leave, they'll be more likely to take the opportunity themselves."

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women and r/ally, a mobile collaboration app.

E-mail: Twitter: @femmeonomics