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Research: Big 4 Dads Still Aren’t Embracing Paternity Leave

dad and baby, close-up photo

TLDR summary of this article from ChatGPT: Big 4 accounting firms introduced paternity leave in 2006, but a recent study finds that many fathers, especially in high-pressure environments like audit firms, hesitate to take advantage of it. The study, based on interviews with 13 men in French audit firms, reveals that fathers view leaves as incompatible with their professional commitments and perceive less support compared to mothers. Despite generous parental leave policies in France, men are reluctant due to workplace culture. The study suggests changing norms around care work to address gender inequalities in accounting firms, emphasizing the need for supportive practices and role models.

When millennials began entering the job market at the turn of the century (yes, we’re that old), “dad leave” wasn’t a widespread thing. In fact, dad leave wasn’t a thing at all really until EY became the first Big 4 firm to offer it in 2006 (we think). Of all the things Big 4 deserves criticism for, and there are many, parental leave policies generally aren’t among them. In current year, all four firms offer various forms of leave for moms and dads. Even adoptive ones. Sweet.

There’s a problem though. Given the high-pressure, work-til-you-drop culture of Big 4, many parents don’t want to take the leave available to them. This is especially pronounced among men (duh) and a recent study published in Accounting Horizons dove into why. The sample size is a bit small — two coauthors interviewed 13 actual and former men auditors in three Big 4 and two mid-tier auditing firms — but we all know these baker’s dozen men aren’t uniquely reluctant to take leave.

Here’s the summary from Men’s Experiences of Paternity Leaves in Accounting Firms authored by Claire Garnier (KEDGE Business School), Claudine Mangen (Concordia University), and Edwige Nortier (Université Paris Dauphine-PSL):

Accounting researchers and practitioners have made strides in addressing persistent gender inequalities in the accounting profession. However, these efforts have largely sidestepped men and masculinities. Our study considers the role of men and masculinities in gender inequalities by exploring how men in accounting experience paternity leaves. We conduct interviews with 13 men in audit firms in France. We find that fathers are reluctant to take leaves, which they view as vacation periods incompatible with their professional work. They see audit firms as offering less support to fathers than mothers, with support for fathers growing but still marginal. Finally, they experience a variety of emotions, including positive emotions around fatherhood and negative emotions around difficulties in reconciling fatherhood with professional responsibilities and paternity leaves. Practically, our findings imply that to address gender inequalities further, accounting firms need to change the norms around care work, including paternity leaves.

Well yes, academics, they do indeed need to change the norms just in general, not only as the norms pertain to care work.

Making things worse when it comes to the guys the researchers interviewed, France has generous parental leave policies. Not just at audit firms, everywhere. Europeans’ obnoxious and often unwarranted smugness toward Americans is, in this case, justified.

Benefits in cash (maternity and paternity leave)

  • You are paid for medical costs in cash, provided that you stop all forms of paid work.
  • If you are a father, you are also paid allowances for paternity leave.
  • In the event of adoption, the daily leave allowance may be shared between the father and the mother.

The researchers say that professional service firms (PSFs) in accounting address gender inequalities via schemes like paternity leave (“schemes” in the European way, not what we call schemes in America as in the Crazy Eddie way) and programs such as Women @Deloitte. “These efforts have yielded results, notably in junior positions, which Big 4 firms extensively communicate about,” they wrote. Nice dig at accounting firms’ self-fellating press releases there. “However, gender inequalities remain significant, especially in senior positions. Women represent 19 percent of partners in U.S. Big 4 firms and 10–15 percent of partners in French audit firms.”

The intro continues:

Whereas accounting research has explored gender inequalities from women’s perspectives, it has been less concerned with men. This oversight is problematic, conceptually and practically. Conceptually, gender involves women, men, and nonbinary individuals; understanding and addressing gender inequalities thus requires exploring not just women’s perspectives but also other viewpoints, including those of men. Practically, practices dealing with gender inequalities that focus on women alone are ineffective if men and masculinities are critical for these inequalities yet not considered.

Now hang on, we’re about to get on the dead horse topic of the talent shortage here.

Gender inequalities remain problematic for PSFs: they contribute to employee turnover and discourage younger generations from seeking accounting careers, given their interest in work-life balance. The primary purpose of this study is to unpack men’s experiences of paternity leaves and how these experiences relate to gender inequalities, thus bringing men and masculinities further into the conversation about gender inequalities in accounting. Moreover, the paper aims to provide practical recommendations for mitigating gender inequalities. PSFs face difficulties attracting and retaining employees, including men who do not embrace the culture of overwork. Our findings suggest that addressing this culture requires attention to gender inequalities in care work (e.g., leaves for childcare).

OK cool, we’re getting somewhere.

To date, accounting research on gender inequalities and men remains limited. Accounting PSFs are imbued with masculine cultures that promote the ideal professional as a white, heterosexual, and nondisabled man who is enthusiastic, client-oriented, and flexible, works long hours, and socializes with coworkers outside of the office. This ideal was reinforced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Men are represented and valued as breadwinners; they are financially rewarded for parenthood via the fatherhood bonus, whereas women are portrayed as caregivers, experience a motherhood penalty, and are constructed as fragile.

Interesting reading on the fatherhood bonus and motherhood penalty referenced above here: Career Paths and Compensation for Accounting Graduates. Actually there is a ton of earlier research they’ve referenced in this paper, might be a fun way to waste an afternoon if you’re into academic research.

Although men in PSFs benefit from these privileges, they also face challenges: they can feel powerless to question the professional ideal since adhering to it signals professional commitment to the firm. Instead, they are committed to reproducing and enforcing the rules of the overwork game in which they remain insecure despite their success.

OK so what can be done about it? One suggestion: tone from the top. “Individuals, especially those with power, like partners, can act as role models in enacting and discussing caregiving.” Excellent. What else? “Professional services firms can alter their communications around caregiving and design practices encouraging men to engage in caregiving.” And “human resources departments can integrate more men into policies that balance work and caregiving.”

We leave you with words of wisdom for Big 4 dads contemplating paternity leave written by GC founding editor Caleb Newquist way back in 2014:

Ignore the fear of a “career limiting move.” That job doesn’t love you. Ignore the backwards thinking clowns that will judge you for taking time to learn how to care for a child. Those people are relics and are scared stiff of the responsibility. Ignore your stupid interior monologue that says you shouldn’t have to change diapers, wear a Babybjorn or, gasp, buy a minivan.

Do the right thing and take your paternity leave. All of it.

Men’s Experiences of Paternity Leaves in Accounting Firms [American Accounting Association’s Accounting Horizons]