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A new study from sociologists at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Maryland at College Park challenges the idea that men in academe can abuse gender-neutral parental leave policies to focus on research rather than parenting -- or teaching.

In “Parental Leave Usage by Fathers and Mothers at an American University,” in this month’s issue of the journal Fathering, Jennifer Lundquist and Joya Misra of UMass, along with KerryAnn O’Meara of Maryland, found that relatively few male faculty members with children took paid parental leave (72 percent of reported leave-takers were women, while 82 percent of all non-leave-takers were men). Those who did take it said they needed to because their spouses were not full-time homemakers. Some fathers whose partners were back at work full time did still not take leave, fearing negative professional repercussions, such as delayed promotions.

The findings contradict assertions that male professors can exploit the paid leave system because they are more likely than their female colleagues to have spouses who stay at home all or most of the time to raise children.

“By and large, even when it is widely available, [male] faculty do not take advantage of parent leave policies -- even when they are the primary or co-equal caregivers in their families,” Lundquist said in an e-mail interview. “What we do know happens quite commonly is that fathers who could really use parental leave (because their wives have no maternity leave) go without, largely because of that stigma.”

While female faculty members were more likely to take paid parental leave, a handful of mothers who had given birth were the only faculty with stay-at-home spouses who did so (for longer than the immediate post-pregnancy period).

The study found that both male and female instructors in science, technology, engineering and math fields were less likely than their faculty counterparts over all to take leave (26 percent versus 61 percent, respectively), partly due to long-term lab schedules and partly due to “child-free” department cultures.

“Many STEM disciplines are still male-faculty dominated, and our participants described informal departmental cultures which operate on the outdated assumption that faculty have a stay-at-home partner to provide support,” Lundquist said.

Stigma about taking paid leave isn't unique to the STEM fields; the study includes numerous assumptions made about both male and female faculty taking paid leave by other faculty in a variety of disciplines during focus groups and interviews. But male faculty are particularly suspect.

"Male faculty should get to take paternity leave only if they are going to be the primary caregiver," one faculty member said. "They should have to sign a statement verifying that."

Another said: "The men I see taking parental leave sit in their office doing research."

Working and Bonding

The study was conducted at a large, unnamed research university from 2006-9, through a variety of qualitative and quantitative means, including surveys completed by 349 faculty members, focus groups and one-on-one interviews. The university has offered a paid semester of leave to both male and female faculty members upon birth of a child or adoption for at least 10 years. Data were collected as part of a larger study about work-life balance on the campus.

Researchers also found that, in addition to caring for their newborns, men and women on paid leave engaged in some work during the period, including student advising and research, as not to fall too far behind in their careers.

The study has implications for higher education, Lundquist said, namely that men who provide co-equal parenting should have protected opportunities for parental leave. Bonding between fathers and children early in life has been linked to such bonding later in life, and allowing men to participate in infant child care sends the “important message that child care is not primarily a women’s issue.”

It’s also an issue of work-life balance, Lundquist added. “We need to give our faculty the resources they need to do their work and a large component of supporting good work is fostering healthy non-work lives.”

Institutions differ in what they offer in the way of paid parental leave packages. Lundquist said that about one-third of universities offer a full semester of paid leave, and most offer it only to mothers. (A spokeswoman for the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources said that one-quarter of institutions that responded to a 2012 benefits survey offered paid leave for a new parent, over and above vacation and sick leave, although the survey did not ask about paternity versus maternity specifically or about duration of leave. The organization supports efforts by colleges and universities to create parental leave policies that acknowledge the roles of mothers and fathers, she added.)

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers with 50 or more employees -- most universities and colleges -- to provide unpaid leave to both women and men for the care of newborn or newly adopted infants, or for close family dealing with serious health issues. Employees can take up to 12 weeks of such leave within a 12-month period.

The American Association of University Professors finds the law an “important first step,” but ultimately inadequate, as it does not require that such leave be paid and fails to provide the same opportunities for same-sex couples or domestic partners. AAUP encourages both public and private institutions to go beyond the minimum coverage prescribed by the federal act and provide some form of paid family-care leave. (AAUP recommends that all educational institutions offer paid disability leaves for pregnancy, typically six to eight weeks.)

Of course, such policies pertain largely to tenure-track faculty (at UMass Amherst, for example, parental leave options extended to tenure-track faculty and librarians are extended only to full-time, state-funded adjuncts who have worked there six years or more). Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, said she didn’t know of many part-time adjuncts – male or female – who even try to take advantage of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, let alone paid leave policies.

Lundquist said the study had implications for the tenure-track system, as well.

There’s a case for “seriously considering a flexible tenure-track system, where faculty have the option to stop on and off the tenure track, or take part-time tenure-track appointments during particularly intensive childcare-giving periods of their lives,” she said.

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