shutterstock_168013181Last month when Business Insider picked up on Sweden’s paid paternity leave policies and how they have presented a dramatic shift in general roles of all parents (not just those of young children), I was all over it.  It made complete sense.  If you get fathers more involved at birth, they are more likely to be involved through-out the life of the child.  This would, as it has in Sweden, force companies to find ways to accommodate all parents who want real work-life balance. Little did I know California was well on its way to setting up this system here in the U.S.

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n 2002 California became the first U.S. state to guarantee six weeks of paid leave for mothers and fathers alike, financed by a small payroll-tax contribution from eligible workers. Since then, New Jersey and Rhode Island have followed suit with 12 and 13 paid weeks, respectively, while other states are taking steps toward similar policies. In Silicon Valley, many tech giants have gone above and beyond the government mandate: Google offers men seven weeks of paid leave; Yahoo, eight; and Reddit and Facebook, a generous 17.

It’s important to recognize that paid leave is the key.  Unpaid leave might protect some people from automatically losing their job, but it’s a relatively meaningless gift granted by the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act.  Aside from the obvious reasons why paid leave is better (bills? hello?), to incentivize men to take their leave and get more involved at home, the leave has to be worth something we can all measure — $$$$.   This is where California gets it really right — just like Sweden before and Quebec after — and the early results are positive.

Since California instituted its program, the percentage of “bonding leaves” claimed by men has risen from 18.7 in 2005 and 2006 to 31.3 in 2012 and 2013. A study by the economist Eileen Appelbaum and the sociologist Ruth Milkman showed that initial concerns that the California law would be a “job killer” were unfounded, and that workplaces have figured out effective and creative ways to cover for leave-taking parents. The biggest hurdle seems to be getting the word out, particularly among lower-income families that could benefit enormously from the program. (Part of the beauty of the California policy is that it extends leave to men in non-white-collar jobs.)

But it may take more than these gender-neutral leave policies to make a real difference.  That’s what it took in Quebec.  They turned the stigma of taking paternity leave into a stigma of not taking it.

The economist Ankita Patnaik, who has studied Quebec’s implementation of such a policy, told me that “families felt they were wasting something” if the father didn’t take leave. In 2006, Quebec increased the financial benefits for paid leave and offered five weeks that could be taken only by fathers. “That’s what really made a difference,” Patnaik told me. “Now dads might feel bad for not taking leave—your baby loses this time with parents.” Since then, the percentage of Quebecois fathers taking paternity leave has skyrocketed, from about 10 percent in 2001 to more than 80 percent in 2010.

Since California passed their paid leave policy almost 12 years ago, only New Jersey and Rhode Island have followed suit though other states are taking steps to get there.  Until then, if we decide to have any more kids we’re moving to California where they know how to take care of their workforce.

(photo: Kachyn Dmitro/Shutterstock)