Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced Thursday that the Pentagon is going to make some significant changes to its family policies. The military will increase maternity and paternity leave, extend military child care center hours, and start a pilot program allowing service members to freeze their sperm or eggs for later use so combat injuries won't interfere with their ability to start a family.
The changes are part of Carter's push to try to make the military more family-friendly, more competitive with the private sector, and better at retaining women service members, who often leave in large numbers once they're ready to start a family.
The family policy changes are probably going to be a big help for new parents — but new fathers still get seriously shortchanged on paid leave compared with new mothers.
Women in all military branches will now get 12 weeks of maternity leave, which doubles the six weeks that women in the Army and Air Force had. (It's actually a cut for women in the Navy and Marines, though, who just had their leave tripled from six to 18 weeks this summer. Women in those branches who are currently pregnant will still get their promised 18 weeks.) Carter called the 12-week leave policy "extremely generous" and competitive with top-tier private sector employers.
But new dads will only see their paternity leave increase from 10 days to 14 days. That's not a lot of time to bond with a new child or establish parenting routines, and that helps reinforce unequal gender norms that leave women responsible for most of the child rearing by default.
Research shows that when dads take more leave after a child is born, they're more likely to be involved later in life. And greater involvement by men in parenting has benefits for the whole family: Both parents are happier and healthier, and kids achieve more and are less delinquent in school.
The typical view of fathers as the "secondary parent" is hurtful to many men, paid leave advocate Ellen Bravo told me. "I remember a dad who said to me, 'We’re not a spare part. We want to spend time with our children too.'"
Many private sector companies, especially in the tech industry, have been expanding their parental leave to try to stay competitive. Most of them offer more than two weeks of paid leave for dads, but many still give fathers a lot less time off than mothers.
Carter said that while the military wants to be competitive with the private sector, the nature of the work will never allow it to be the same. "We are not Google, we are not Walmart; we are war fighters," he said at a press briefing on Thursday. Similarly, he argued that reducing maternity leave for the Navy and Marines from 18 weeks to 12 weeks was a necessary part of balancing military readiness with giving women the time they need to heal and bond with their child.
Carter is clearly trying to improve the military's gender equality overall. He recently lifted the ban on transgender soldiers serving, and he announced in December that women will now be eligible for all combat roles with no exceptions. But there's still some odd gender inequality going on when you decide that women can take 12 weeks off for a new baby without adversely affecting military readiness, but men can only take two.