May 16, 2019 Articles

Perspectives on Paternity Leave Bias in Law Firms

A large-firm associate’s observations about attitudes and unspoken cultural norms toward men who use paternity leave.

By Alexandra Navarre-Davis

Many law firms offer sparing paternity leave policies, assuming the firm offers paternity leave. In a climate where traditional caregiver gender roles are shifting, some firms may consider offering paid gender-neutral parental leave policies, which can be enacted with relative ease. The challenge, however, is creating an alternative firm culture. The desired culture should be one in which employees can use paternity leave without fear of retribution or being demeaned for doing so.

I interviewed an associate at a large law firm regarding his observations about the firm’s attitude and unspoken cultural norm toward men who use paternity leave. His observations were both illuminating and troubling. He stated emphatically that associates and partners who used paternity leave were viewed unfavorably. At his firm, a week of paternity leave would be acceptable enough to avoid the proverbial side-eye from other colleagues. However, taking more than two weeks of paternity leave would likely result in negative consequences and repercussions for the employee, such as unfair and unwarranted assumptions about the employee’s work ethic and commitment to the firm and, upon his return, the supposition that the employee has been “out of the loop” and is unable to handle matters to the same degree prior to his leave. The associate also said that even if an associate or partner is on paternity leave, he is still expected to be readily available during his leave.

During the interview, he shared a story of his male colleague—an associate—who took a week of paternity leave after the birth of his second child. The associate’s automatic email reply indicated that he was out of the office but still available by phone or email. The clear implication here is the existence and expectation of conformity to an unspoken cultural norm that trivializes the value of paternity leave. Notably, the associate’s email reply conformed to his firm’s expectation of the length of leave he should take and the fact that he was expected to be available, even though he was on leave.

Throughout my interview, one word that the associate emphasized—whether intentionally or unintentionally—was “unspoken.” He described three “unspoken” norms related to paternity leave that are embedded in his firm’s culture: (1) that male employees should refrain from requesting paternity leave; (2) if leave is requested, the absence should be less than two weeks (but the employee should still be available for the duration of his leave); and (3) if an employee deviates from the unspoken norms regarding paternity leave, he can expect to suffer repercussions.

An unspoken or unwritten practice or policy that has become so enshrined in a firm’s culture that it has the power to influence whether an employee takes paternity leave without fear of retribution, and how long he takes leave, is a powerful one. Thus, to begin to unravel some of that power, the initial step in transforming a firm’s cultural stigma associated with paternity leave is to identify and give credence to the problem. Law firm leaders and managers must openly and unequivocally acknowledge that implicit organizational bias toward paternity leave is a valid issue, and one that needs prompt remediation.

The second step requires firms to consider neutral parental leave policies that provide equitable paid parental leave, regardless of gender or caregiver status. Such a policy would communicate to employees that the firm rebuffs outdated presumptions about traditional gender roles. Gender-neutral leave policies are effective in transforming a firm’s culture because the nature of the policy itself encourages men to take leave to care for their babies and assumes that they want to do so. However, this step will not reach maximum effectiveness if the firm’s cultural norm does not change. The associate I interviewed observed a critical issue: that his firm offers parental leave, but male employees are reluctant to take advantage of the benefit because of those unspoken, yet all too real, repercussions.

The third step, then, requires a work environment that fosters and supports paternity leave. To create this environment, employees—especially managers and supervisors—need to engage in introspection to identify their own implicit biases toward paternity leave and make a good-faith effort to overcome them. Support for paternity leave must come from the top. Male employees desiring to use paternity leave must also play an active role in shifting firm cultural norms by unabashedly taking advantage of the full paternity leave package. The more commonplace it becomes for employees to take paternity leave, the more it becomes a part of the culture and, by tautology, less likely that male employees would be ostracized for using paternity leave.

To determine whether and to what extent implicit biases against paternity leave exist in other industries, I also interviewed a software developer who works for a technology start-up based in Silicon Valley. Not surprisingly, his experience with paternity leave was starkly different from that of the law firm associate. His company offered 16 weeks of paid paternity leave and encouraged him take full advantage of it. He was discouraged from checking email and other messaging services during his paternity leave and, notably, did not fear that he would be penalized—whether directly or indirectly—for taking the full amount of paternity leave. He knew the company was truly supportive of his desire to be home with his new baby.

The software developer’s experience with paternity leave shows us that there is hope for better paternity leave policies in other industries. With a concerted effort and an internal cultural mind shift, it is possible that in the near future, male associates, partners, and staff in law firms can take paternity leave in a setting where it is not only offered but expected and encouraged to be used.

Alexandra Navarre-Davis is in New Orleans, Louisiana.


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