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Bernie Sanders Missed the Bigger Point on Paid Leave. It's About Men, Too.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

At the first Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday, CNN’s Dana Bash asked the five candidates about paid leave. She didn't ask, Why is America the only industrialized nation in the world without a federal paid leave policy? But rather: "What do you say not only to Carly Fiorina, but also a small-business owner out there who says, you know, I like this idea, but I just can’t afford it?"

An important constituency was missing from the candidates’ answers: Men.

“Every other major country on Earth, every one, including some small countries, say that when a mother has a baby, she should stay home with that baby,” Bernie Sanders said. “That is an international embarrassment that we do not provide family—paid family and medical leave.”

Hillary Clinton's failure to mention paid leave for fathers was less obvious, as she referenced her own experiences as a mother.

“I remember as a young mother, you know, having a baby wake up who was sick and I'm supposed to be in court, because I was practicing law," she said. "I know what it's like. And I think we need to recognize the incredible challenges that so many parents face, particularly working moms.” Clinton chided Republican arguments against other policies that help women, from Obamacare to Planned Parenthood. “I know we can afford it, because we're going to make the wealthy pay for it.” O'Malley, too, said paid leave is necessary so that "women aren't penalized in having to drop out of the workforce." 

Paid parental leave makes economic sense, but not simply because it helps mothers: By encouraging men to become proactive caretakers, it improves women’s prospects in the workforce. That's because if only mothers avail themselves of paid leave benefits, and fathers continue to work, then hiring discrimination and the gender pay gap will persist. Many countries have learned this only by trial and error: Denmark, Finland, and Germany have devised quotas and "daddy bonuses" to ensure that both parents take advantage of shared paid leave.

Sanders, like Clinton and O'Malley, supports paid family leave for both men and women. But it's archaic to frame gender equality in terms of a woman's right to continue to get paid while raising a baby. That should be a father's right, too.