New Dads find employers family unfriendly

David Williams missed work last Sunday to stay with his wife after the birth of their first child, and that will cost him $111,111. The response of his employer, the Houston Oilers, reflects a broader social problem: Is there really any support for a man who wants to be a New Dad?

According to most experts on fatherhood and employers' family policies, the Houston Oilers were out of step in one sense: Most employers now allow men some time off, at least a day or two, to be with their wives when they give birth to a child.


But these experts say the team's reaction highlights a much more subtle issue. Employers and society in general still frown on fathers who want time off for tasks mothers usually perform, from paternity leave to caring for a sick child to not working late because they want to see their children before they go to bed.

"This is the most extreme case of something we see in corporate America all the time," says James Levine, the director of the Fatherhood Project for the Families and Work Institute in New York, which conducts research and advises employers on family policies. "There is still a collision between policy and culture at many companies. And it's not going to change unless men like Williams challenge the culture."


Indeed, most large companies do offer parental benefits to both men and women, but researchers have found that most men fear repercussions at work if they take advantage of them.

A 1986 study by Catalyst, a New York research organization, asked employers who had leave policies how much time off they thought it was reasonable for men to take. Sixty-three percent of the 298 companies that responded said men should take no leave.

Mr. Levine said that several studies indicate that fathers take an average of three days off after the birth of a child, whether their companies have official leave policies or not.

Now, a federal law that took effect this August, the Family and Medical Leave Act, requires companies with more than 50 employees to offer most employees, men and women alike, up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave after childbirth or adoption or when a child or family member is sick. But experts predict most men will still hang back.

"The message is really, 'Be more involved, but not to the point where it interferes with your job,' " says Joseph Pleck, an expert on fatherhood at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.

In many cases, whether a company has formal policies in place or not, many supervisors try to make adjustments for women who had to take a sick child to a doctor, stay at home because they could not find a substitute baby-sitter, or take a few hours off to see a child perform in a school play. In many companies, fathers are either afraid to ask or fear they will be labeled undedicated, even unmasculine.

Mr. Levine, who has interviewed many fathers for a study, said he had heard countless stories in which supervisors told fathers that the rules permitted them to take leave but advised them to take vacation or sick days instead. In essence, Mr. Levine said, companies tell fathers, "Real men -- upwardly mobile men -- don't take leave."

Scott Hare, 39, a father of two who works with fiber-optic devices at the American Telephone and Telegraph Co. in Murray Hill, N.J., is an exception. AT&T; has long allowed employees considerable unpaid family leave.


In 1988, Mr. Hare took six weeks off after his wife went back to work; in 1990, he took eight months off.

"There were no repercussions; people were OK about it," Mr. Hare says. "The first time around, my boss said, 'I've never had to do this for a man before,' but in the end, it was OK. There was no doubt about it that I could go."

And times are changing in other workplaces. Mr. Levine, whose institute offers seminars on balancing work and fatherhood, said corporations had begun requesting them about three years ago.

Some companies offer model programs. Continental Insurance gives expectant fathers beepers. Los Angeles Water and Power offers an extensive Fathering Program that includes training fathers in how to support their wives' breast-feeding effortsand an eight-week program describing how fathers can become good parents. Four times a year, the company runs a "Daddy and Me" excursion, in which fathers and children visit nature preserves, beaches or farms together.

What makes the company's efforts particularly unusual is that 78 percent of its 11,500 employers are men, many of them in blue-collar jobs.

Beverly King, the company's director of human resources who created the program, said the program earned back $2.50 for every dollar spent, mainly in increased productivity and reduced absenteeism and turnover.


The Boston law firm of Peabody & Arnold has two weapons in an uphill fight against the legal world's tradition of long hours. The firm has made several lawyers partners who billed clients for 1,800 hours a year, although many law firms demand at least 2,100 hours. The firm also offers a seminar for parents called FTC "Families First" and plans to repeat it soon, said Doug Reynolds, the partner who initiated the program.

The Eastman Kodak Co. offers seminars for parents, has organized a Working Parents League so parents can exchange ideas through electronic mail and has provided family leave for several years, said Kathy W. Olson, Kodak's manager of Work-Life Initiatives.

But even at these relatively generous employers, problems remain. Kodak does not grant personal days and has a traditional culture of frowning on absences, Ms. Olson said. Men take only about 10 percent of the family leaves at Los Angeles Water and Power.

No man has yet taken family leave at Peabody & Arnold, and Mr. Reynolds said the old law-firm ethos of long days was extremely hard to combat.