Alexis Ohanian: Why now is the time to destigmatize paternity leave, for good

Author: Alexis Ohanian

The pandemic has shone a bright light on unequal parenting expectations. But there is a solution, says the Reddit cofounder and venture capitalist.

On my daughter Olympia’s third birthday this month, I found myself reflecting on those early days after bringing her home and how special it was to spend that time with her and her mother as I took my first steps into fatherhood.


After she was born, I took four months of paternity leave, which was Reddit’s company policy, engineered by our VP of people and culture, Katelin Holloway. I told her I wanted to set an example for all of our hundreds of employees—not just the men, but especially them. While a small fraction of U.S. companies (9%) offer paid paternity leave, the stark reality is that many men don’t take advantage of the opportunity, due to a looming stigma and fear of losing their standing—or, even worse, their job. Unfortunately, those fears are not unfounded and that stigma is very real.

I was disheartened to read recently about the former CEO of a fitness brand who (among other abhorrent discrimination accusations) allegedly disparaged a male colleague who was contemplating taking paternity leave. While it was upsetting to see, especially from a company that touts community as a priority, it was not shocking. Those comments are symptomatic of a larger societal sentiment and evidence that there is still so much work to be done.

The implication that paternity leave is unimportant sets a dangerous precedent, one that suggests fathers are not an integral part of the child care unit, and perpetuates the antiquated belief that mothers alone should be the primary caregivers. Worse, explicitly (or implicitly) telling a male employee that they’re less of a man for taking time to be with their family after their child’s birth is as stupid as it is outdated. Showing up is exactly what fathers should be doing for their families. Now is the time to eliminate the stigma associated with paternity leave, once and for all.

As we continue to navigate the COVID-19 crisis, we’re seeing exactly how fathers can show up when they are at home. Research shows an 11% rise in equal responsibilities shared between mothers and fathers since the onset of the pandemic. Harvard University also found that nearly 70% of fathers across America feel closer to their children now than they did pre-pandemic. These are positive changes that we need to carry with us as we move forward. We can no longer go “back to normal”; instead, we need to use this time to take an inventory of broken systems and get to work on fixing them.

FATHERS MUST FEEL EMPOWERED TO TAKE PATERNITY LEAVE, AND OUR SOCIETY NEEDS TO NORMALIZE IT.

Throughout my time championing the need for paid family leave, I realized that fighting for paid family leave policy is only half the battle. Fathers must feel empowered to take paternity leave, and our society needs to normalize this.

The benefits of normalizing paternity leave have a much greater impact beyond the father himself. Studies have shown that when men are able to take paid leave, they can help close the gender pay gap. In Sweden, where they provide equitable parental leave policies and encourage fathers to take leave, research shows a mother’s earnings can rise by about 7% for each additional month her spouse is able to take leave. Business leaders in the United States supporting paternity leave wouldn’t just be helping men spend time with their newborns—they are setting up families for a better quality of life.

Not only does equal parental leave benefit the family, but it can also benefit the company by attracting and retaining talent. A study conducted by Promundo, an international nonprofit, finds that 77% of millennial men have or would be willing to change jobs in order to better manage fatherhood responsibilities with career responsibilities. By introducing better policies, having an open dialogue in the office about parental leave, and finding new solutions to support teams while these new parents are jumping through hurdles at home, business leaders can create a more equitable workplace and, in turn, retain employees.

But how do we eliminate this stigma associated with taking paternity leave?

I believe it starts at the top, not only with implementing paid family leave policies for moms and dads but also through leading by example. Executives in positions of power need to take full advantage of those policies and encourage their employees to do the same. This sends a clear message that the policies are more than just lip service, or an HR box checked—they’re a concept the company truly believes in. Business leaders with public profiles (who can normalize policies) have an extra responsibility by showing that we’re performing at the top of our fields not in spite of taking paternity leave, but because we are taking it. Along with business leaders who stand up for their employees, we need advocates in government, (such as Delaware Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester) who recognize the important role legislation holds in supporting family.

And while we work to erase the stigma, we must continue to advocate for policies. It’s an unprecedented time in America, one that has been particularly trying for families enduring the pandemic, an economic downturn, and an ongoing battle for racial equality. We need to do everything in our power to support families wherever we can. Equal parental leave is just one of the ways we can help to set them up for success. Currently, the U.S. is the only industrialized country that doesn’t provide some form of paid family leave. It’s time to change that.

As I celebrate another year with my daughter, I feel not only fortunate to have been there for all the milestones at the start of her life, but I also realize how critical it is for other fathers to have that same opportunity. We need to change the way we as a culture think about paternity leave and empower fathers to embrace it as a right they are entitled to, and not a career choice they have to make.


About the Author

Alexis was born in Brooklyn, NY and grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, MD. He's written a national bestselling book, Without Their Permission, has long advocated for the open internet, STEM education, and paid family leave. Alongside Garry Tan, he co-founded Initialized Capital—a seed stage venture fund with over $500M under management and a portfolio with $36B in market value so far). Alexis also co-founded Reddit, sold it to Conde Nast, then returned in 2014 as Executive Chairman to help lead the turnaround of the now independent company. Reddit was last valued at $3B.


Article also published on Fast Company

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