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“You Cannot Claim to Have Any Ideas About Family Values Unless You Value Fathers”

Josh Levs

It’s a strange season in America, at least if you care about feminist social policies that have for decades felt wholly out of reach. It’s not just Kirsten Gillibrand and Rosa DeLauro and Hillary Clinton advocating for paid family leave; Barack Obama discussed it in the State of the Union. Bernie Sanders is running for president and talking about equal pay for women. Bill de Blasio has mandated free pre-K in New York City. And Josh Levs, a 43-year-old CNN reporter has written a book, All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses – and How We Can Fix It Together, arguing that it is incumbent on men to become part of a conversation about gender equality in homes and in workplaces. Levs is a former NPR reporter who has, at CNN, developed a beat reporting on issues surrounding parenthood. In 2013, he filed an EEOC claim against Time Warner when, after the early birth of his third child, he was denied the ten paid weeks offered to mothers and to adoptive or surrogate fathers. He spoke to The New Republic by phone.

Rebecca Traister: At what point in your life did you become interested in gender equity and bringing men into conversations about it?

Josh Levs: I grew up on Free to Be You and Me. I knew the girls I grew up with were just as smart, capable, and driven as me. It never occurred to me that they wouldn’t be able to make it as far in their careers as I would as a boy. But then we grew up: We got jobs, had kids, and discovered that the workplace never grew up. The workplace never listened to Free to Be You and Me. It was built on structures based entirely on the 1950s presumption that women will stay home and men will go to work. I mean: Only 4.6 percent of CEOs in the S&P 500 are women. That is insane.

When my wife was pregnant and I realized I would need to be home, I discovered that Time Warner had this strange policy under which anyone could get ten paid weeks, unless you were a man who impregnated the mother of a child. I went, in private, straight to [the Time Warner] benefits [department] and said, “I’m sure this is an oversight and you didn’t mean to exclude dads.” They wouldn’t give me an answer for months. Then my daughter was born in an emergency delivery, and eleven days later I’m home holding my four-pound preemie, messaging benefits, saying “Hey, I need an answer.” That’s when they wrote back to say that they would be unable to give me paid leave benefits. I decided to file a suit with the EEOC for gender discrimination.

RT: What was the public response to news of your suit?

JL: Literally the night I posted on Tumblr that I was doing this, I began hearing from women’s groups and men’s groups, issuing statements of support. I heard from Sheryl Sandberg and Maria Shriver, mom bloggers and dad bloggers. The response from my colleagues was hugging and kissing me in the hallways, slapping my back, saying “good on you.”

It was fascinating to me as a journalist that this issue was so galvanizing for so many women and men. That’s when I realized that we are all in this together: women and men, everyone who truly wants equality for our daughters and our sons, our wives and our husbands.

RT: Let’s talk about those structures, beyond your own situation. How do we fix this?

JL: We need paid family leave on a national level. It’s good for businesses and good for the economy; it already exists and is working great in California and New Jersey and Rhode Island. We need to make this national policy. There’s a bill in Congress, the FAMILY Act, that would do that.

Paid leave is not a law requiring businesses to pay you when you’re out. Paid family leave is an insurance system that would tax 20 cents for every $100 you make. Studies show that when people find out what paid leave is, they support it. It is an absolute human necessity, not left or right. When a child leaves a womb, it should have a parent home with it for a bunch of weeks, and that parent should not be worried about putting food on the table.

But I also recognize political reality: Because the FAMILY Act does include a “tax,” it’s ripe for political ridiculousness. So if we can’t get the FAMILY Act passed, I propose a different way, a way that involves lowering taxes to make it politically palatable. But that way wouldn’t do enough for people at the lower end of the spectrum.

Meanwhile, some companies are doing well on these issues: Silicon Valley companies like Facebook, Yahoo, Google … also Bank of America and Deloitte. And there are small firms introducing great policies. Business needs to make these changes happen.

RT: You just mentioned your anxiety for those on the lower end of the spectrum. When we congratulate individual businesses for good policies, isn’t there the risk that what we’re just widening a class gap, offering certain classes of Americans access to economically humane policies that struggling Americans need more than anyone?

JL: Absolutely. And look, if we got the FAMILY Act, it still would not do enough for people at lowest end of the economic spectrum. We need to talk about living wages; we need better access to transportation because so many people can’t access jobs to begin with. We need free, universal pre-K. And it’s true that the risk in extolling companies who implement good family leave policies is that we allow people to use this argument to say if “Let’s leave it to the free market!” But ultimately, in an effort to build policies that makes sense, we have to celebrate our victories when they come.

There are very few people, I think, who do not believe that there should be these policies. The people who hold the power, in politics and business, aren’t acting out of ill intent; they just don’t know what the reality is for American families and it’s important that we tell them.

RT: I’m not persuaded that the people who oppose policies like paid leave aren’t ill intentioned. I’m pretty sure that lots of them don’t want to enact legislation that’s going to help get us closer to gender equality, or that would help poor people gain economic stability.

JL: I say they may have no ill intent and are just out of touch because I don’t want to paint all business leaders with one broad brush. I think there are some who just don’t realize that dads are involved at home, that women work, that the world has changed.

But there is also a [less benign] desire to hold on to power, to a “Mad Men” mentality. I was on a radio show in Toronto—and you’d think Canada would be ahead of us on this; they have better policies! —but there were four callers, two of whom said that women should stay home and that men were not capable of taking kids. There are Neanderthals! We have to take it seriously when Piers Morgan goes on Morning Joe and says that men don’t want paternity leave and are useless with babies. Some people are stuck on wanting to hold on to those old versions of masculinity and femininity; we need to rise up against that. Notions like “Women worry more about their kids”—as long as you hold on to those tropes you cannot advance to equality. I’m the father of a daughter and two sons, and I want my daughter to have an equal opportunity to have a career and my sons to have equal opportunities at home.

RT: There’s a lot in your book about battling pop culture stereotypes. How do you see the pop culture and the policy as being linked?

JL: The starting point is pop culture. We need to change the predominant images people have in their minds. I spoke to one guy who was excoriated for taking off two whole days after the emergency birth of his child, but who takes really good care of his kids. He said to me, “I’m not like most dads. I come home and cook dinner and take care of my kids. Most dads don’t want to do anything when they get home at night.” Where do people get that image? It’s from this popular image of the clueless, doofus dad. It’s perpetuated in ads suggesting that dads are really stupid and don’t know how to do anything, so buy our product and it will fix that.

We need more real life stories that tell us that the norm today is for dads to be totally capable at home. Dads are not lazy, not coming home at the end of the day, kicking up their feet and doing nothing. When we start to understand that domestic egalitarianism actually does exist, we will have to respond with policy. That’s why these dumb dad stereotypes are not just an annoyance, they have real life implications.

RT: They certainly have a real life implication in my house, where my husband, who orders the diapers, has spent hours of his life apoplectic about the “Amazon Mom” membership.

JL: He’s not alone! There’s a Facebook group of 1,200 dad bloggers who are very involved in a campaign to get them to change it. It’s crazy, in other countries it’s “Amazon Parent.” But not here.

RT: I want to ask you about the politics of being a guy entering a gender equity conversation that has long been dominated by women.

JL: These conversations need to stop being women with other women. Some men have felt unwelcome or nervous about entering these conversations, especially privileged white men. But I’ve done hours of interviews with guys from all over the country and in every case they were eager to speak out about all of these issues. But we have to start really listening to what the guys are saying and think about how to actively bring them in and make sure their voices are heard. That’s why I wrote the book.

RT: I agree, but it can get tricky to bring male voices in—there is the fear that those voices will become the dominant ones or even just the validating ones.

JL: Right. Well, square one is that, again, I’m a Free to be You and Me kid. I understand that the people who’ve paved the way toward gender equality are women. I am the beneficiary of their work. Now we as men have the opportunity to join them. I just believe that anyone who frames this as a fight for our daughters and our sons, that they not have the same struggle, is going to see that we are all in this together. All of us have to stand up against sexism.

RT: There’s been a lot of disagreement within feminism in recent years over different approaches to gender inequity: Should advocates urge individual action or collective, systemic change? You seem to advocate for both.

JL: In order to tackle this we have to deal with big structures and also individual attitudes—male privilege and female gate-keeping. We need the policy shifts, but without addressing our ingrained attitudes they will only take us so far.

RT: I was struck by your description in the book of the over-extended father, stretched so thin by his commitments to work and to kids and relationships. This female character—the “I Just Don’t Know How She Does It” woman—is so familiar to us. Why is that guy a less popular character?

JL: No one stops to think about the conflicts men have, because there’s that popular image of men coming home at the end of the day and kicking up their feet. So we are told that women have it so hard—

RT: —in part because having it hard drives home a message is that it’s unnatural and overtaxing for them to go to work.

JL: Right, and that men aren’t naturally parents. To this day, the vast majority of parenting discussions are about women. There was a morning show where someone pitched the idea of me coming on to talk about my book and the response was, “Well we once did something about stay-at-home-dads” and a) my book isn’t about stay-at-home-dads, but b) …

RT: They do repeat segments on moms five days a week?

JL: Yes! This idea that [engaged fatherhood] is such a rare thing that we don’t need to do any more segments about it? We need to push everyone to understand the truth about what’s going on with families. You cannot claim to have any ideas about family values unless you value fathers.