Nearly four years ago, Maryella Gockel, Flexibility Leader at Ernst & Young, went before a Senate Panel to speak about the many benefits of paid parental leave, and now four years later, that same company has been accused of denying equal leave to men and women. Shmuel Eisenbach, a former manager at the accounting firm, has filed a lawsuit against EY in a federal court, alleging that the company fired him after he asked for extra parental leave in 2016. The recent lawsuit brings up questions about corporate culture and the effects it has on thousands of workers, both men and women.
Paternity Leave Is Good for Everyone
A Huffington Post article, written by Emily Peck and published in 2015, posited a pertinent thesis: that paternity leave (together with its maternal counterpart) is a good thing, not just for new fathers, but for women seeking reprieve from a repressive work environment. When men are encouraged to spend time with their newborn child, they become more empathetic to the exigencies of rearing an infant – or at least in theory. Thus, when everyone, regardless of gender, is taking time off for parental reasons, women are less likely to experience reprisals for missed work.
There have been numerous examples of major firms instituting parental leave in recent history. Perhaps most famously, the Facebook executive Tom Stocky posted about his four-month absence from work after the birth of his child, highlighting the immense amount of labor that goes into raising an infant. “The first days of paternity leave were harder than I thought. Caring for my daughter was physical work that required being constantly alert. I had thought her two naps each day would serve as breaks, but instead that time was mostly used for showering, feeding myself [etc.].” Stocky also went on to underscore some of the assumptions around gender roles – assumptions that automatically place the father as secondary care-giver. He recalled one interlocutor saying, “’It’s too bad you can’t earn as much as your wife so she can be the one to stay home.’” He criticized this point of view: “I don’t mind the assumption about earning potential, but I do mind the one about my wife being the preferred at-home parent.”
Breaking Down Gendered Assumptions
Stocky’s post touches on the complexities of sexism. When men are expected to take leave in order to care for their child, the “pre-determined” gender roles are troubled in such a way that certain assumptions around gender can begin to unwind. In the process, of course, there are those who cannot wrap their minds around a stay-at-home dad. To some, this remains unconscionable.
Paid Leave Policies
In an attempt to address the issue of sexism in the workplace, companies turned toward gender-neutral parental leave policies in the mid aughts. In 2006, EY instituted a 6-week paid paternity leave for new fathers – women received an extra six weeks through disability insurance. According to Nancy Altobello, the vice-chair for talent, this policy led toward a sizeable increase in female partners at the firm. Other major accounting firms followed suit. Deloitte, for its part, started giving 8 weeks paternity leave not long after EY. Following the implementation of the new policy, Deloitte started to make more women and minorities partners at the firm.
Tension in the Workplace
A New York Times article published in 2014 found many (feminist) reasons to support paternity leave, while noting that the stigma of taking time off from work remains. For instance, according to certain social scientists, paternity leave can lead to decreased depression in the months following the birth and can result in higher earnings in women’s careers. But still there remains a careerist culture that demands total loyalty. A male consultant involved in a Boston University study recalled an interaction with a colleague who said: “‘You have a choice to make […] If you are going to be a professional then that means nothing can be as important to you as your work.’” A culture that fosters this type of thinking can lead to lower pay for men taking paternity leave, according to the New York Times article.
Nonetheless, if more companies institute paid paternity leave, it could eventually lead to fundamental changes. Speaking with the New York Times, Sociologist Scott Coltrane put it this way: “If men are asking for more stuff, it can help make the workplace more kid-friendly.” In the end, it’s not enough to offer paid leave; companies need to actually encourage it. That’s why Mr. Eisenbach’s lawsuit is so troubling. If the allegations are true, EY is not holding its end of the bargain, and the once-progressive policies might actually turn out to be more of a PR stunt.