Why Facebook CEO's paternity leave is a big deal

Zuckerberg's paid paternity plan
Zuckerberg's paid paternity plan   

Who benefits when a dad takes two months paid leave?

First, there's the baby, of course. Research shows that men who take paid paternity leave are more likely to be involved with their children in the years to follow. There's some evidence that the leave helps cognitive development, as well. Time to bond with a baby helps the parent decode emotional cues and build a stronger foundation for the baby's mental health.

The partner certainly benefits, especially if it's a woman who's just given birth and who's trying to breastfeed.

But if the dad's name is Mark Zuckerberg, the beneficiaries multiply as quickly as Facebook "likes" for a great cat video. They include Facebook employees, dads in general, and other CEOs — male and female.

A Norwegian study tells us that men are much more likely to take paternity leave if they have a brother or co-worker who took it. The effect is 2.5 times greater if the role model taking leave is a senior manager rather than a co-worker.

The boss taking a leave sends an important message to employees that the company policy is authentic. If the boss is able to be out for a period of time and have his or her work covered, then so can other staff. Zuckerberg's actions imply that Facebook knows the importance of standing behind its family-friendly workplace policies by having a strong leadership team cross-training and a collaborative work style that allows other employees to take on more responsibilities while company leadership is out on leave.

We can't forget to list Mark Zuckerberg among those who will benefit from his leave. He'll experience more of the joys of parenting. And he'll also be a better leader by empowering his employees. Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube, pointed this out in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. As a mother who took maternity leave five times, she said, being a mother "gave me a broader sense of purpose, more compassion, and a better ability to prioritize and get things done efficiently. It also helped me understand the specific needs and concerns of mothers, who make most household spending decisions and control more than $2 trillion of purchasing power in the U.S."

Zuckerberg's high-profile paternity leave reminds us that paid leave isn't a favor to women – it's a better way to run a company. Dads as well as moms want time to be with their loved ones. Being able to take that time makes employees more productive and more attached to their workplace, which is good for the company's bottom line and employee retention.

But we must remember that as a CEO of one of the most successful and influential companies in the world, Zuckerberg has options that many don't. Most fathers don't have access to any leave or can't afford to take the unpaid leave offered. Zuckerberg's paternity leave should serve as a reminder of how far we have to go before all working fathers can afford time off for their loved ones. A recent report says only a third of men take two weeks or more of paternity leave. The single law that the United States has regarding leave, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees unpaid leave for individuals to care for themselves or loved ones, leaves out 40 percent of the workforce. And even those who are eligible often can't afford it.

To make sure all fathers, and all those needing leave, are able to take the kind of time that Zuckerberg is, we need a national paid leave fund – something that pools small contributions to allow workers to draw a significant portion of wages while they're being good parents to their children and good children to their parents. But until we have that, we must look to high-profile leaders like Zuckerberg to lead by example.

Zuckerberg's decision will not only benefit him and his family, but it will have a ripple effect on his employees and other companies and decision makers worldwide. Let's hope legislators and Congress are among those watching so we can pass affordable leave that benefits everyone.

Commentary by Ellen Bravo, the executive director of Family Values @ Work, a national network of coalitions in 21 states working to pass policies like paid sick days and family and medical leave insurance. Follow her on Twitter @Ellen_Bravo.