Alexis Ohanian wants dads to feel empowered to help care for their families following the birth or adoption of a new child.
The co-founder and former chief executive officer of Reddit, who also happens to be married to Serena Williams, knows firsthand what that’s like — having spent months at home with his new baby after Williams almost died during childbirth.
He had already planned to take the leave, and took 16 weeks all up, as per the policy offered at Reddit — something many executives would simply claim is impossible to do.
Now Ohanian is urging other fathers to do the same, penning a piece for The New York Times on the topic, in which he noted more than three-in-four fathers in the United States are back at work within a week of their child’s birth or adoption.
“Dads, let me be your air cover. I took my full 16 weeks and I’m still ambitious and care about my career. Talk to your bosses and tell them I sent you,” he wrote.
He also said he didn’t think much about parental leave before the birth of his child. The 16-week policy his company had in place was not his idea. Instead, it came from their vice president of people and culture, Katelin Holloway.
But he’s very, very happy he took the time and signed off on the policy — noting all the things he learnt during the period that has given him confidence in parenting.
So why don’t more men take such leave? Firstly, because there is no mandated policy on parental leave in the United States (although the presence of this hasn’t changed the situation much in Australia).
But secondly, Ohanian puts it down to stigma, with men still conditioned to be breadwinners exclusively.
“And another mouth to feed calls for more bread on the table (to say nothing of college tuition) — so off to work we go.
“Our sense of duty is often fear-based: men assume their bosses will frown on paternity leave, so we don’t dare go there,” he wrote.
In the UK, it’s an issue former prime minister Theresa May sought to address in her final weeks of office, penning a piece for The Guardian stating the wrong message is being sent to fathers when they have significantly less access to leave than mothers.
Australia offers 18 weeks to primary carers at the minimum wage, while the average among OECD nations is 55 weeks, with the majority offering a replacement wage. Other countries enable and often encourage the leave to be ‘shared’. Australia instead offers two weeks to ‘secondary’ carers, below the 8.1 week average for OECD nations.
The United States is the last remaining OECD nation to not have some form of mandated parental leave, with figures cited by Ohanian claiming almost one-in-four women are back at work within two weeks of giving birth.
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As such, Ohanian is calling for a federal bill that will mandate quality paid family leave for parents, adoptive parents and caregivers.
“Getting dads (and, in turn, families) off on the right foot begins at birth, and it can’t just be up to individual businesses to ensure that happens,” he wrote.
But until then, he’s calling for men to take the initiative to talk to their bosses and take time off, demonstrating he was able to take leave in a high-profile position, and his career did not suffer as a result.
While Ohanian, as the leader of his organisation — and a progressive one at that on employee entitlements — is in a very different situations to other dads, the fact he could take a lengthy stint of leave proves that no title or level of responsibility is so great that you can’t take some time off.
He writes that he gets that not all fathers will have the flexibility to take parental leave without fear, nor with the support of an organisation. But he has a simple message: “Taking leave pays off, and it’s continued to pay dividends for me two years later.”
He said the chunk of time he got to spend with Olympia when she was a newborn gave him the confidence to see that he could “figure this whole parenting thing out”, especially given he’d never held a baby until her birth. The leave set him off on the “right foot for sharing parental responsibilities” and there is no stigma in their house regarding who’s changing nappies, feeding the toddler, doing her hair, or anything else.
He’s also encouraging all new dads at Initialized Capital — where he’s managing partner — to take leave, and says they currently have three dads on paid parental leave at the same time.
In that “day job” he says he has identified two types of leaders in business: those who bring problems and those who bring solutions. He wants a household with the latter.
“Parents who can only identify problems aren’t leading, and I’m encouraged to be seeing more and more fathers exercising their role in household leadership by solving problems, whether it’s bringing home a paycheck or performing dad things.”
Ohanian is in a different stratosphere to most dads when it comes to earnings, profile and his ability to take control of his own leave situation — but he’s helping us get one step closer to normalising fathers taking solid stints of parental leave.
Employers have a duty to also help.