A Sponsored Initiative

Dad Sues for Parental Leave & Changes Corporate Policy — Josh Levs

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with CNN reporter, Josh Levs. He is an investigative journalist who’s a 6-time Peabody award-winner with 2 Edward R. Murrow awards.  At the time of the birth of his third child he sued his employer, CNN/Time Warner, in order to obtain a paternity leave for biological fathers that matched their leaves for mothers and adoptive parents.  He has a new book, All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses – And How We Can Fix It Together. It’s being hailed as the Lean In for men.

Below are excerpts from their conversation. Or listen to the audio:


Josh Levs: Josh LevsHey, Stew, thank you so much for having me.  It’s perfect timing.  I just got my two boys into the bath and my wife has taken over from here, the baby just went down in the night, and I walked into the office to talk to you.   This is what parents do now.  We try to do it all.

Stew Friedman: You were, and still are, a successful, award winning reporter for blue chip organizations  — Time-Warner,  CNN, and before that NPR.  When you and your wife had your third child, you sued Time Warner for paternity leave.  What was it that led you to that decision, what was the turning point for you?

JL: I was a journalist and in addition to covering major news, I was already a father, a columnist writing stories about fatherhood.  We were doing segments on the air and we were interviewing other dads and then, all of a sudden, the tables got turned and I was the dad in the news.  We determined that, for several reasons, I would be at home after the birth of our daughter, our third child, and Time Warner had an extremely unusual policy, but it’s also the type of policy that many places have.

They’d allow any person who had baby to take care of the baby when they came home unless that person impregnated the mother.   Had I put my child up for adoption and some other dad adopted her, he could get leave.

SF: What was the theory, behind that?

JL:  The way these policies are structured, we have to follow the money.  Time Warner, has a disability policy that provides women with ten paid weeks after they have a baby.  They were encouraging women to have their doctors sign a form saying that they needed ten paid weeks for physical recovery.  Their time off is paid entirely through the disability policy.

Then, Time Warner decided that there are some people in other situations, perhaps a gay couple or a couple that chooses to adopt, and they wanted to give ten paid weeks to them, too.  But when I went to them in advance and I said that the only group of people you are not allowing the option of ten paid weeks to be home after the birth of a child is a biological father and I’m sure this is an oversight.  I can’t imagine that anyone intended it. I went straight to Benefits but they wouldn’t give me an answer for a month.  Then my daughter was born in an emergency and they still wouldn’t give me an answer.  Then 11 days later I’m home, holding my four pound premie daughter, taking care of my sick wife, as well as my two boys. I emailed Benefits saying that I needed to know, am I going back to work now or am I getting leave?  That’s when they wrote me back and said no, they wouldn’t give it to me. It was clearly a discriminatory decision and so I filed with the equal employment opportunity commission.

SF: What changed for you when that decision came down, personally and in terms of your role as an advocate for social and policy change in our country?

JL:  It was a really interesting twist, I was going to be the guy in the news.   But I didn’t realize until the night when I announced on social media, on Tumblr, that I was taking this step, how many women and men it would galvanize.

As soon as I announced it – it was like I unleashed the flood gates and these group started supporting me — Maria Shriver, who is now a big supporter of the book, and mom blogs and dad blogs. So I became fascinated as a dad and as a journalist: what was it about my case that was galvanizing to so many women and men?  And I realized that we are all in this together, all of us, who wants real equality for our daughters and/or sons or a wife and/or husband.   We’re all up against these backward structures that are pushing women home and pushing men to stay at work.

To this day only 4.6% of CEOs in the S&P 500 are women.  Why is that?  We have these structures that don’t make any sense, are bad for business, bad for the economy, bad for all of us. I learned through this experience that we are all in this together, all those of us who want equality.

SF:  Have they changed other policies?

JL:  A year later they created a new policy; they revolutionized their policy, made it infinitely better. Dads now get six paid weeks, moms who given birth get more time than they used to.  They are now getting 12 weeks or 14 weeks, in some cases.  More and more businesses are discovering on their own that having policies that allow families to make their own decisions about who will do which role is better for business.

So you are seeing companies like Facebook and Google and Yahoo! but also not just in Silicon Valley, you have Bank of America, and Johnson & Johnson that just made an announcement.  More and more of these big businesses are discovering that when they offer these kinds of polices, it helps attract and retain employees and it makes them happier and more productive and it works for the bottom line.  That part is the good news.  The bad news is that most companies are not on that bandwagon, things are actually going in a negative direction.

SF: I can’t tell you, Josh, how heartwarming it is for me to hear this. I too have two sons and a daughter. The first one was born in 1987 and that was a transformative moment for me, personally and then professionally.  Since the late 80s I, and a bunch of other people, have been advocating for just the kinds of changes that you’re talking about here.   And to see the flowering of these ideas in so many places in our society, though we still a long way to go, to be able to see how much has changed since the mad men era, is phenomenal.  A lot has changed, especially for women, but now we’re seeing change for men. What do you think has shifted in the cultural consciousness that has allowed for and enabled people like you to come forward and to move the needle further?

JL: The positive part comes from worker empowerment.  It’s more and more workers who recognize that they have choices.  Silicon Valley has helped lead the way on this.  Workers in Silicon Valley can get another job, not everyone feels that way especially since the 2008 financial fiasco.  But culturally I think my generation grew up on Free To Be You And Me.  It never occurred to me that my sister or any of my female friends would be less capable leaders.

SF: You graduated college in ’94, do I have that right?  So, you’re a Gen Xer?

JL: Yes, I’m 43 now.  My generation has this spirit of Free to Be You And Me and then we got to the workplace and we had children and we discovered that the workplace never grew up.  There are a couple of examples in my book: One guy, his baby was born in an emergency, he took off two days from work and was expected to work on Monday.  His boss comes in and abuses him for having taken off two whole days.  That boss is a pregnant women.

There are a lot of women and men in leadership positions who have these backward ideas. There is another boss who told the worker he could not have the time he was legally entitled to for care giving because men are not supposed to do the care giving unless wives are “in the coma or dead.”   And that’s a quote.

I was on the radio and two people called in to say that the Mad Men era was one of the best eras in the history of the world and that we should go back to it; that the job of a man is to work and the job of the women is to stay home.  We still have a lot of people who think that.  That’s why we all have to be all in and pushing against that and bringing about this cultural understanding that true equality will never get anywhere as long as people hold on to those old notions.

SF:  I’ve been saying for decades now that social change on this front takes time, but there are things that we can do to spur and inspire change.   One of the important things is to have people who have a pulpit or a  microphone tell their story, which is what you have done so eloquently and so powerfully in this new book demonstrating that there are a lot of options that are available for people to assume roles in the society that fit  their unique situation.  I love this aspect of what you’re saying in your programmatic advocacy; that it’s individualized solutions for families that work for them. There is no one size fits all.  Telling your story is crucial.  How do you think people can do that in a way that really starts to affect the kinds of expectations that people have for men and women?

JL: I talk about ways that we can work for changes in the laws, and this is one of those huge misunderstandings in America.  Paid family leave is something that we need, a basic human need, when a child comes out of the womb, it should have a parent at home with it for a bunch of weeks who does not have to worry about putting food on the table for that time.

SF: Keyword being their parents, not necessarily a mother, it could be a mother or a father.

JL:  People here think, wait a second, you want to make a law saying that businesses have to pay people when they are not working.   No, that’s not what paid family leave is.   Paid family leave currently exists in California and New Jersey.   Businesses in those states now like it and so do the workers.   You create basically an insurance fund [that employees, not businesses, pay into. ]

And when people have a qualifying emergency not just for kids, but for taking care of an aging parent, you get paid out of that fund.  What that does is it gets people to stop dropping out of the workforce entirely which is what they are doing now.  Instead, they can take the paid time off and then come back to work.  So everybody comes out ahead, it helps the economy.

We have got to do something because this is not working and it’s too painful.   Families struggle, they’re having to rush back to work after the baby leaves the womb because they need the money.

SF: It’s something I’ve been writing about in the book that we did comparing Wharton students from your generation (1992) with the generation of people that just graduated (in 2012).   In the advocacy piece of that, we made a big point about the success of the experiments in California and New Jersey. The research that’s been done tracking what’s occurred in those states shows that businesses become supportive because there is better employee attraction and retention as a result of these policies, policies that don’t cost employers anything.

JL: Yeah, when people find this out, they start to support it.  A prominent conservative leader like Jim Daly, the Head of Focus on the family, is saying that now, looking back, he was embarrassed he was ever against the Family and Medical Leave Act, FMLA.

We have public schools and we have Medicare for children because we understand that caring for children is good for society and this is just another piece of that.  For several weeks at least a parent should be able to be with the newborn.  And not only a mom is capable of being the caregiver, men are just a capable.

SF: Yes, in some cases more so. And that really gets down to what people want to do, what roles they want to play.  The role of caregiver and breadwinner can be taken up by a man or woman.

JL: I know you have a lot of business leaders who listen and in the end it is just basic logic.  Sometimes, the best person for a job is a women. So why would you possibly want a policy that pushes women to stay at home and men to stay at work, if the woman is the better person for the job?  You talk about mind and spirit.  Work-life conflicts are, in part, attributed to these backward structures that we have that prevent us from having legitimate work/life integration.

And business leadership that is open to have great women and great men who happen to have children and also want to be great employees, those businesses are discovering that it’s a huge opportunity for them.

SF: Yes indeed.   And the demand is growing for the kinds of programs that we’ve been developing here for decades and now bringing to the world including in a MOOC that I teach on this very topic that has reached 140,000 people worldwide.  The demand for useful tools and ideas for change is huge; it is truly a new moment. What else can listeners do to create positive change for their business or, as an employee, to create greater freedom and the support needed to be the parent and worker they want to be. What other ideas do you have?

JL: There’s male privilege, female gate-keeping, and the bonus temptation.  An expert in the book spoke about male privilege.  He was, like you, one of the handful of men and women who are really pushing this thing forward.   He says that he believes that a lot of men talked a good game about equality, but when it came down to it, they weren’t ready to fight for it, because it’s easier to say sorry honey, you know I don’t have a choice, I have to work.

And then, there is female gate-keeping, which is the flip side of that.  Some women grew up taking care, grew up babysitting, and grew up believing that girls and women are better at taking care of kids.  When the husband takes the baby, they say, “no, no, you don’t do it like that, let me do it, let me do it.”   So these are time that we all, as men and women, need to look at ourselves and say, do I need change my own individual attitude in order to be ready to stand up for equality and to allow it to flourish and to set the right example for our children.   Then the bonus temptation describes what happens sometimes when men come back to work after paternity leave, they get fired or they get demoted.   They are literally punished for being caregivers.

SF: Did you experience that when you came back?

JL: I did not, and that’s part of the message.  My colleagues were openly supportive; hugging me and kissing me in the hallways.

SF: Really? So they weren’t saying, “hey, you’re busting the rate here, you are making us look bad” or, alternatively, “you are a slacker?”

JL: The opposite.  So many guys said to me, “I always hated the policy, but I didn’t know we had the right to change it” or “I was afraid to.”  Now, are there certain bosses, high up in the ranks who think of me as being unmanly or whatever?  It certainly hasn’t been said directly to me.  But because so many men unfortunately do face that stigma, they are not even taking what paid leave they get. But in countries where there is a public policy making six or eight weeks available for men, then men take it. Otherwise you look crazy not to take it.

SF: Even in Sweden it took years for that to become normal for men, but that was three decades ago.  Josh, we have to wrap up here. What’s the one thing you want to make sure our listeners take away?

JL: I want people to know that I went into this with a totally open mind.  I didn’t have position, I didn’t know what I was going to find out about policies. What I found is exciting because we’ve got a win, win, win, win here.  If we stand up for better policies, we make things better for women and for men and we make things better for business and the economy, and the cause of equality.  There isn’t a loser.

Thank you for the interview and also thank you so much for being a leader on this, you have really paved the way for people like me and I’m forever grateful.

For more information about Josh Levs’ new book, All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses and How We Can Fix It Together visit his informative website, joshlevs.com and follow him on Twitter @JoshLevs.


Leave a Reply