ask a scatterbrain: parental leave

A reader asks:

“To all you tenured and tenure-track Scatterplotters, how does your university handle the issue of leaves of absence for male faculty members who become parents during the academic year? Do you have paternity leave? If yes, does the policy differ from the maternity leave policy? At my university, only female faculty members who physically give birth are entitled to paid leave (by deploying accumulated sick days). This doesn’t cover a whole semester, but departments generally step-up and release female faculty members from teaching for a semester, in exchange for some increased administrative duties. Males are only entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave (per Federal law).”

I’m perhaps a little embarrassed to admit that I have no idea what the paternal leave policy is Northwestern (or what it was at Madison when I was there).

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

44 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: parental leave”

  1. At Rice, ‘primary caregivers’ can have one semester (full pay) off of “teaching, research, and administrative duties” after the birth or adoption of a child. It works the same for men and women, although I have heard some men say they are uncomfortable certifying they are the child’s “primary caregiver.” Some men do certify this, and take the leave, and some don’t. You can also choose to add a year to your tenure clock or not. I know we are lucky (we also have on-campus childcare plus 100 hours per year of in-home back-up child care, which has been invaluable, esp. when kids are mildly ill and can’t go to daycare/school).

    You can see the official info here:


  2. my university system gives paid leaves to both fathers and mothers — generally, course releases and no/little service requirements. i would guess you could take a longer unpaid leave as well (and/or stop your clock).


  3. UNC has the same for men and women – one semester paid leave – for the primary caregiver. In practice that means both spouses can’t be on leave at once. But you have a year to take it (after birth or adoption), so each spouse could take one semester.


  4. Ours is FMLA, which is less than a semester, either parent. It winds up being worked out to something like a semester, but not always. I never took anything, and my spouse only got a one course reduction for one (out of two) kids. The department chair is quite influential in determining what gets worked out.


  5. FMLA is unpaid leave, it should be noted. Everyone is legally entitled to that (in the US if your employer qualifies).

    NU has a childbearing and a childrearing leave policy. Both are available to moms and dads. I have known some really smart folks who have taken the childbearing leave together then alternated the childrearing leave. (like yyikes says, you are eligible if you do half of the childrearing so I think it is one at a time).

    Child bearing is one academic term (less in the law and medical schools) and childreaering is one academic term in the first year of the kid coming to the family (through birth or adoption).


  6. At Indiana, the rule is written as a generic “family leave” – so moms, dads, or care takers can take the policy. Long as you have a legitimate family or personal health issue, broadly defined.

    When you activate the policy, you get a 1 year tenure clock delay applicable immediately, unless waived. You also get the dept to find substitute teachers, if applicable. You also get a pay reduction. About 1/3 I believe, it may be more. You may activate the policy multiple times if you need more than one semester/or another issue pops up, but you only get the tenure clock delay once.

    I don’t know what happens if you activate the policy many times, but Indiana faculty have access to work insurance. If you are personally disabled and you pay for the insurance before hand, the insurance will kick in and cover your salary during during most of your illness.


    1. PS. The IU policy is per semester. Unless otherwise negotiated, family leaves means you are not working from the time of notification until the end of the current semester. Then you can try to activate it for the next semester, if needed.


  7. At my uni, either sex can take sick leave around the birth or adoption of a child (or to care for an ill relative). You are also allowed to take unpaid “parental leave” for big blocks of time. The policy also permits ad hoc arrangements to reduce or reorganize instructional duties around the birth or adoption of a child and to go on partial payroll status with some combination of part-time sick leave and reduced duties. There is also a one year tenure clock extension you can apply for. FYI some of us think that this gender-neutral policy is unfair to the people who actually bear children, as it is a disadvantage to have to use up your sick leave this way and the people who do not actually experience the physical disability of child birth get the same benefits as those who do. Also it leads to disrupted classroom experiences (as pregnant people who are not wealthy often teach up until the day they give birth to avoid wasting sick leave), too-hasty a return to the classroom, and extra work by friends of child-bearing faculty (who themselves are disproportionately female) to cover the missed classes.


  8. jeremy: yup, that is the implication of my argument. Adoption is not the same as childbirth.

    And I should also say that I recognize some of the arguments on the other side and that it is a complicated issue. And that my uni’s permissible ad hoc arrangements are much more likely to be used for people who actually birth babies because, you know, they actually need them more. But the strict gender neutrality of the policy and the unstructured “permitted but not required” character of the policy gives plenty of opportunity for unsympathetic chairs to make life hell for people who have the temerity to actually get pregnant and bear a child while employed as a professor. (This doesn’t happen in sociology btw, but has happened in some departments that are still overwhelmingly male.)


  9. Wow, I was actually just thinking (worrying) about this very topic today.

    I’m 23 and a first year grad student in a top sociology program. Sociology is my passion, I have every intention of being very good at it, and I would love a career in academia. But I must say that in many ways academia is looking less and less attractive. For one thing, as far as I can gather one semester (about 10 weeks) is the most you can hope to get for paid parental leave, if that. Two and a half months is nothing to write home about. In Sweden, couples are entitled to split 18 months the way they see fit.

    Besides, many institutions only offer paid leave to women, as part of a “disability.” As a society, do we really want to be telling women that having a baby is a disability? And no institution–least of all the supposedly enlightened halls of academia!– should imply that it’s the primary responsibility of women to raise children (which is precisely what we hear if only women are able to take parental leave or only women end up taking leave). The academic world should be truly embarrassed by the state of this issue. It’s no wonder that there are so few tenured women at universities. And most of the women who are tenured don’t have children!
    There is no reason that in today’s world, where women and men strive to combine work and family, that professors should have to choose between having a job or children.

    Keep it up, and universities are going to continue to alienate brilliant men and women from entering the profession. I’m definitely going to keep my options open. I don’t want to, but I feel I have no other choice but to ultimately consider other options than academia.


  10. Also, in my ideal world, it should just be a given, a normal part of life. You’re having/adopting a baby? Man or woman, you take off 6 months and your spouse (if you have one) takes the next 6 months. You come back to work ready and motivated to make the next big discovery, support your colleagues, and be a fantastic educator. Is that so much to ask?


  11. gradjanedoe: I can see why you’d prefer Sweden (or other European countries) but surely you don’t imagine that in the US there are non-academic employers that provide better parental leave policies than universities offer? And, this isn’t my expertise so perhaps I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure I’ve been told that despite all that gender equality of options in Sweden, in practice, women take all the leave and men keep working.

    As re whether having a baby is a disability, it is this kind of talk that forces women to act as if pregnancy and child birth were the rough equivalent to getting your teeth cleaned — you don’t even seem to imagine it is as big a deal as having your wisdom teeth removed. Pregnancy and child birth are both natural and irrelevant to important academic abilities like brain function and creativity, but pretending that there is no physical consequence to the woman of going through them is not, in my opinion, good for women. It is just echoing the patriarchal idea that there is something wrong with being physically female.


  12. PS just in case there is some ambiguity about my policy position, I am the coauthor of an internal memo arguing that people who will give birth in a semester should be reassigned at full pay to duties in that semester that are compatible with the disruptions of childbirth without having to use up their accumulated sick leave.


  13. 1) many non-academic employers provide better parental leave policies than universities (10 weeks was the absolute TOP i’ve seen. many universities only offer accrued vacation time). deloitte, for example, offers managers and directors 4 months. of course, these are competitive, high-end companies, but they’re definitely out there.

    2) you are right that more women than men take parental leave in Sweden, but since the institution of “daddy days” more men are taking parental leave as well. last i saw, about 70% of men take some form of parental leave.

    3) i’m absolutely not arguing that there is something wrong with being physically female or that we should pretend like there are no physical consequences to giving birth. but are you really saying that the best way to frame this period in a woman’s life is labeling it a “disability”? i think that giving birth should be normalized, in the sense that it’s a normal and (for the vast majority of women) expected part of the life course. women shouldn’t be forced to pretend like it’s no big deal, EMPLOYERS should recognize that it is a big deal and provide appropriate leave, tenure-clock considerations, etc. BUT, I also believe the same effort on the employer’s part should be undertaken in response to a man who is expecting a child. to focus only on women devalues the role men can and increasingly want to play (this is just based on anecdotal evidence i’ve noticed among my own peers).

    olderwoman: i see you concerns, i really do. but what’s so disheartening to me is that instead of focusing on what employers (the university/academia) can do to change and improve, you’re basically telling me to thank my lucky stars for the status quo.


    1. also, it’s not just about how much time off you can get, it’s about the culture of the workplace. from the picture i’m getting, at some universities even mentioning that you might want to have a family in the future is bad for your career (if you’re a woman, that is).


  14. I almost hate to blast my Canadian trumpet here, because while it’s no Sweden, it is much better here than in the US. Our university offers a benefit of 17 weeks at 95% pay for preggos, partners (male or female) and/or adoptors. No sick leave is used up. After that, the federal policy kicks in through the Unemployment Insurance program for either partner (or a split of partners) for the remainder of one year, which is the lesser 55% of pay or $447/week. Tenure clock stoppage is ad hoc, but common.

    Many people, however, fall through the cracks, either because they can’t afford the salary cut or because they don’t qualify as full-time employees at the outset of benefits. In the bad economy, some have found themselves laid off at the end of a parental leave and then no longer eligible for unemployment benefits, because they have used them all up. There have been calls to fix this that have yet been heeded.


  15. gradjanedoe: “what’s so disheartening to me is that instead of focusing on what employers (the university/academia) can do to change and improve, you’re basically telling me to thank my lucky stars for the status quo.” Either I was unclear or you overreacted. I’m certainly not advocating the status quo, and I don’t think my grumpy comments could be read that way, but perhaps I just knew what I was thinking, not what I wrote. For sure we should be advocating for system change. I agree about culture of workplace and getting men more involved in parenting.

    What I am reacting against are strictly gender neutral policies that I feel discriminate against women who go through pregnancy and childbirth. There are many people who do not experience pregnancy (for reasons of sex, fertility, or choice) who resent and complain about any special accommodation for those who do. (I’m not sure this was in the subtext of Jeremy’s original post, but I have definitely heard other people complain that it is unfair to other workers to accommodate pregnancy in any special way.) The political question is whether strictly gender-neutral policies end up being best for women, even though they seem to me manifestly unfair on their face, because they reduce the resentment of men and others who don’t bear children and increase the pool of people who expect to benefit from them. And I do advocate good child-rearing benefits along with child-bearing benefits.

    Also, I wouldn’t get so discouraged about the local climate. There are lots of family-friendly departments in sociology. Again, not to say you should stop advocating for social change. Just that a lot of the old guard is already on the same side as you are and works to figure out how to make the best of a bad system.


  16. I would myself have both a gender-nonneutral policy on health-related leaves that acknowledges that only women get pregnant AND a gender-nonneutral policy on pension/retirement/healthcare systems that acknowledges that women typically live five or more years longer than men. If the world would do the fair thing and make women bear the full cost of how long they live and how much non-pregnancy-related health care they utilize along the way, we could fund initiatives of more health-related leave for women during pregnancy.

    (Note: I had no larger subtext to @8. I was just asking.)


    1. Ah, but if you want gender-nonneutral retirement policies, you’ll also need to factor in the gender-nonneutral social forces that discriminate against women (and particularly against mothers, see Correll’s research) in salaries, so that women/mothers draw lower pensions anyway, despite living longer.


      1. Yes, I understand the argument that there should be gender-nonneutral policies when those policies advantage women and gender-neutral policies when those policies advantage women. After all, it’s only fair.


  17. Perhaps I am over-reacting. I’m in the process of re-reading The Second Shift, and it just makes me a bit on edge: the situation Hochschild described 20 years ago in the U.S. doesn’t seem all that different today. Sigh…


    1. I am reading the Mis-measure of Woman. And it looks like nothing has changed in the 16 years since that book was written. Jeremy’s last comment made me want to pull my hair out. It isn’t about advantaging women. It is about not advantaging men. And because men and women don’t always have the same exact situation, you can’t always have the same rules, laws, and guidelines. But again, it is not about advantaging anybody. It is about equality of outcomes. We need ways for women to be able to procreate, care for children, and care for aging parents (since unfortunately, it is still predominantly their role)and be able maintain equality in the workplace. If that work was at all valued, this most likely wouldn’t be an issue.


      1. Yeah, advantaged was a poor choice of word with respect to parental leave. It’s the right word with respect to retirement/pensions. Social security and medicare are huge wealth redistributors from men to women, although not as much as is death itself.


  18. ellen3b: yes. A biological constraint of our existence is that the there are unavoidable physical costs of reproducing the species that fall on people who are biologically female (absent a few extreme experimental procedures). From this irreducible fact about our biology, different people draw radically different policy conclusions, which can be roughly grouped as follows: (1) Women should focus their entire existence on motherhood and forgo any involvement in the world of work when in child-bearing years; or (2) Women should be compensated in the world of work for the biological costs they bear in reproducing the species; or (3) It is unfair to provide any benefit in the world of work that only biological females can take advantage of.

    To be fair to that line of thought, I think a lot of the people who advocate generous gender-neutral family leave policies are hoping that men would pick up a disproportionate share* of the non-biological parts of infant care to balance the biological costs biological mothers bear. And/or believe that even if things are not actually equal, mothers will on balance be better off if they are working amid men who have been incentivized to spend more time in child care.

    *not just an equal share


    1. I think where we pretty plainly disagree here is that I absolutely do not believe that the fathers and mothers out there are doing me, childless citizen, any favors by having kids. In other words, while plenty of other arguments for parental leave can be made, I don’t owe anybody (Mom or Dad) anything for helping “reproduce the species,” and so that doesn’t motivate any of my own thinking.

      If there are any readers who don’t want to have kids but think you are helping out the species by doing so, don’t. The species will go on just fine without your kid. Every woman in the United States could have their tubes tied tomorrow and we will still have more of our species on the planet in 20 years than we do now. The planet more generally will likely be a teensy bit better off if you don’t have kids.

      Ultimately, I am all for people having kids, but parents should do it for good-old-selfish reasons and not delude themselves into thinking they have done the world a service. You have certainly not done me personally a service, as your kid costs me money in all kinds of ways. Generally speaking, I pay these costs with goodwill, until you start talking like it’s you doing me a favor rather than me doing you a favor.

      Given this position, all the talk about “women bearing the biological costs” doesn’t really have much moral force with me. If nobody ever asks a person to bear a cost, and instead they do so because it seems like they really want to, then why do they suddenly deserve compensation for it?

      (Again, you can morally motivate parental leave policies in other ways, but “service to the species” to me is quasi-galling and a complete non-starter as a justification.)


      1. ? Nobody is trying to do a morality trip on you. The issue at debate is not whether there should be supports for children at all (which is the only point your comment could possibly be relevant to) but whether workplace support for childbearing and childrearing should be gender neutral. I’m arguing that “neutral” policies are unfair to women. Anomie, for example, has a rebuttal to that point.


      2. As an empirical argument, the claim that other people’s kids don’t benefit childless individuals (like myself) at a minimum rests on heroic assumptions, but more likely is just false. What about social security? If “every woman in the United States” had “their tubes tied tomorrow,” who would pay my social security and medicare benefits in the future? Replenishing the contributing pool through immigration, while a theoretical possibility, assumes that those immigrants would willingly pay the pensions of people not their parents. Maybe, maybe not. Yet another possible solution – complete privatization – didn’t fly politically. Which seems to suggest that I, childless as I am, have a cold hearted economic interest in supporting the childbearing and child rearing of others.


      3. rugstudy: What I said was that if every woman in the US had her tubes tied tomorrow, world population would still increase. I’m not sure why the assumptions of that are heroic, but perhaps you have a different threshold for heroism than I do.

        As for the idea that I claim “that other people’s kids don’t benefit childless individuals”, of course there is a difference between providing a benefit and being a net benefit (that is, still being a benefit once you subtract out costs). In any case, the appropriate comparison would be whether a childless individual gets back from an individual child the discounted value of the money the childless individual pays out for an individual child.

        For that, note that you smuggled “and child rearing” into your final sentence. Sure, given the existence of the kid, one can say there are self-interested reasons to see that the kid is raised right. Those don’t count. The issue on the table was whether people should be “compensated” for bearing the “costs” of bringing the child into the world. I support parental leave policies, but not because I’m grateful to parents for doing me a favor by having a kid.


  19. Hmmm…I’m not sold on any one argument, but I’m leaning toward gender-equal leaves as the ideal. It is a major medical event for women to give birth, and should be treated as such (as far as leave and pay are concerned). But it is one of those events from which recovery occurs at home. Ideally, with assistance. As such, the other caregiver (should there be one) should get leave time to assist the mother in her recovery. After a reasonable recovery period (personally, it was 6 weeks before I was really on my feet again), one parent should get additional extended leave to care for the child in its infancy. Or, ideally, both parents, but consecutively.


  20. Wow, if the state of the debate is really whether it’s fair to “compensate” parents for “reproducing the species,” things are much worse than I suspected. Wow.

    That just rings so very American–individualistic, uncaring, “I’m going to get mine” kind of mentality.

    jeremy: you do say that you support paid leave, so I’m guessing that there is something about using collective resources to support various members of society during different parts of their lives that you agree with. I can only hope that’s true.

    olderwoman: one way to solve the gender-neutral debate would be to adopt the kind of policy they have in Sweden, where a couple gets to decide how they want to split 18 months of paid parental leave. That would allow women who feel they deserve more time off than men to take it, and women who don’t feel that way to make other arrangements. Of course, this would require unimaginable action by the federal government, so I won’t hold my breathe. Instead, I will place my support behind gender-neutral policies in universities, because for me sending the message that men have as great a responsibility to be primary caretakers as women (despite the fact that they don’t give birth) is extremely important.


  21. The original question was just about the different leave policies available. But I’m curious to know from people who have actually taken leave: how was it perceived by your colleagues? What effect did it have on your career, etc?

    I’m also curious about people who have children but didn’t take leave. Why not? Are you happy with your decision? And how do you perceive colleagues who did take leave?


  22. Wow – so very much to think about and read here!

    As yyyikes says above (@8), UNC’s policy is gender-neutral and tied to disability, though only very recently, i.e., in the past few years. The policy can be found here. Chairs dislike the policy for a good reason: it’s completely unfunded, so all the financial burden of a parental leave falls on the department’s instructional budget. However, informally, my understanding is that in the College of Arts and Sciences it’s reasonably well complied with. I took parental leave following the birth of my second child, was his primary caretaker during that time, and suffered no repercussions nor ill will from my department.

    Things are less good in the medical school, both because of the culture over there and because it’s unclear how they’re to fund leaves given the funding mix of clinical, research, teaching, and state dollars. The policy says nothing about any of this, and it’s therefore up to the goodwill of chairs and administrators, which is in some (NOT ALL) cases virtually nonexistent.

    Before I read this thread I would have said gender-neutral was the way to go. However I find myself (as often) really convinced by OW’s points about gender specificity of childbirth. I also like the distinction (@16) between child bearing and child rearing benefits. Beyond the biological point, though, I think it’s important to recognize just how much of this is — in perception and, sadly, in practice — a “women’s issue.” I think that’s why I find OW’s distinction so useful — it allows an institution to separate out the woman-specific parts of the process with the gender-neutral parts and treat them, potentially differently.

    I find Jeremy’s (@19.reply) position entirely unconvincing. Granted that the “species” would continue; but the point is that child bearing and child rearing are social goods, not because of the perpetuation of the species but the perpetuation of the culture, the economy, the polity, the society. It’s not a biological good but a social one, and one that quite reasonably deserves societal, not just privatized, support.


  23. gradjanedoe: One major shift in the past 20 years is that more universities are taking the decision about minimum accommodations out of the hands of chairs. Formalization doesn’t solve the problem of inequity, of course, but it does help. It’s especially beneficial for assistant professors, who typically aren’t in a position to disagree or raise a fuss if their chairs don’t volunteer or readily agree to time on the tenure clock, course releases in the semester after birth, reduced committee assignments, etc.

    I haven’t seen stigmatization of or discrimination against those who take leave (male or female). However, it is all too common for external evaluators use time since PhD (“she’s been out for [N] years…”) as the denominator to calculate a tenure or job candidate’s rate of past productivity, and then to assume that this accurately predicts the future rate of productivity. This practice would have a gender-neutral effect if fathers were as likely to take leave as mothers and if, when fathers take leave, they spend as much time on child care and as little on research as mothers. My sense, though — no data, just anecdotes — is that neither are true.


  24. I too like differentiating between the woman-specific event of childbirth and potentially gender-neutral practices of caretaking (for the young, old, or infirm).

    I used to supported gender-neutral policies, but I now see their risks. Depending on the context, such policies can do more harm than good. These gender-neutral policies collide head-on with the masculine “Ideal Worker” model, feminized notions of caregiving (see Tina’s “not mom of the year” post), the modern emphasis of sublimating “everything” for the children within families, and a ticking tenure clock. The risks are particularly pernicious when both members of the couple are on the tenure track.

    The question for me is how to have policy that seeks to reward and encourage shared caretaking, but that is concomitantly realistic in recognizing that we’re not in gendered utopia yet (at home or at work).


  25. @23-

    Granted that the “species” would continue; but the point is that child bearing and child rearing are social goods, not because of the perpetuation of the species but the perpetuation of the culture, the economy, the polity, the society. It’s not a biological good but a social one, and one that quite reasonably deserves societal, not just privatized, support.

    I’m not sure why it is so difficult for people to see that the cost/benefits for child-bearing and child-rearing are very different things. The question of whether a person is providing a public good by bringing a child into the world is very different from the question of whether a person is providing a public good by how they rear a child given that they have borne the child.

    I think that the logic of imagining kids as a public good doesn’t really go to the places people think it goes. How do people feel about support for parents whose children are plainly going to contribute less to the “the culture, the economy, the polity”, e.g., kids with cognitive disabilities? Me, I think society should be more supportive of such parents, but I don’t see how someone would get to that position from social-good reasoning. I also personally believe that parents who adopt kids are doing society a greater good than parents who have their own kids; I’m presuming people who take the birth-is-a-public-good perspective feel the opposite.


    1. Yes, there are needs arguments that are different from contribution arguments. When I was raising biological realities, I had the former more in mind, although in the process pointing out that pregnancy and childbirth are requirements of human reproduction, which I agree can be taken to imply a contribution argument.


  26. There are different routes to the culture-economy-polity goods, but I don’t think it’s immediately obvious that kids with cognitive disabilities are going to contribute less to these. Granted that it’s self-referential, but a strong argument can be made that the “good society” is one that supports and values such diversity, which in turn can’t be supported or valued without encouraging its development.


    1. I appreciate the point, but saying that a good society is one that treats people X well–which, incidentally, is quite close to my own position–is very different from saying that people X are net contributors to the culture, the economy, or the polity. If the idea was that parents of children with cognitive disabilities deserve compensation for their prospective contribution of their child to the culture/economy/polity, it would seem strange for that same society to turn around and engage in research attempting to cure cognitive disability.

      In any case, by this point the argument that I originally objected to, which was about compensating people for their contribution to species reproduction, has mutated into something very different.


  27. I’m going to stay out of the “social value of children” argument as anything I’d want to say about it is way too complex for this thread. But the pedant in me cannot help noting that the value of a “collective good” can be negative: the term refers to social externalities and the impossibility of exclusion. So national defense is still a collective good, even if I personally am a pacifist who opposes my government’s foreign policy. How much I personally value that good (and whether that value is positive or negative) is a different matter from its status as a collective good.


  28. One way of thinking of the “public good” argument is that women bear a disproportionate cost of having children for men. Of course, women want children too, but often so do their partners, which are men in heterossexual relationships. So it’s not public per se, but men can have a family that they might desire bearing much less cost than women can have a family. So, say, a male professor can enjoy having a family life with lower cost than a woman professor can. Not speaking of the whole dual-career couple issue, which is still a big deal in academia. Plus, I think that women are often expected to have kids (for example, by their own extended family), often have internalized this expectation, etc, so that staying childless may not be such an easy decision


  29. Greetings from the other side of the Atlantic. In Denmark and Sweden, the usual rules for parental leave apply in academia.

    At my former workplace (Umeå University, in Sweden) we had four male lecturers and Ph.D.-students (yes, Ph.D.-students) on 6-8 months parental leave at my department during my time there.

    So, would you still want the U.S. to become … Sweden? :-P


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