When Alexis Ohanian was born in 1983, his dad took exactly one day off for his birth. Most of us millennials can likely attest that their Boomer parents did the same. But this generation of parents will have a very different experience—that is, if Ohanian has anything to say about it. In a partnership with Dove Men+Care that was announced earlier this year, co-founder and managing partner of Initialized Capital, Reddit co-founder, and husband to elite athlete Serena Williams is on a mission to empower dads to go to bat for their paternity leave.
In a New York Times op-ed that ran on August 12, the 36-year-old dad of one shared that he took 16 solid weeks of paternity leave when he and Serena welcomed their daughter Olympia. "Serena and I were lucky enough to have help at home and many other advantages working in our favor," Ohanian wrote. "But even with all of that privilege, including my ability to focus solely on my family and not worry about keeping my job, it was still incredibly difficult. Nothing could have dragged me away from my wife and daughter in those hours, days and weeks—and I’m grateful that I was never forced to choose between my family and my job."
Far too many families are being forced to make that choice. In his Times piece, Ohanian highlights disturbing stats like:
- Nearly one in four employed women giving birth in the United States is back at work within two weeks.
- Only 9 percent of work sites in the United States offer paid paternity leave to all male employees.
- Seventy-six percent of fathers are back to work within a week after the birth or adoption of a child.
And even when dads are offered paternity leave, they're hesitant to take it due to the stigma they feel around putting work on the back-burner.
But Ohanian believes now is the time for us to do better by families, thanks in great part to technology.
"The way work is done now is so much different [than it was in the '80s], and a big part of that is technology," Ohanian says. "Talk to any CEO today, and if they’re running a modern business, they know that the output of the people in their office is not a direct measurement of the hours spent in a seat. We have so many more ways to stay connected to the work that we do, even when we’re not there."
For that reason, he feels millennials, more than any previous generation, have been able to take a stand when it comes to the autonomy we have in our careers. Plus, antiquated stigma around being an active father has dissipated, as a result of our ability to instantly share family-oriented moments. "Everything from smartphones to even social media has changed and really enabled this generation of dads to think about dad life differently," he says. "Even, frankly, the silly things, like the way that fathers now, myself included, have new channels to sort of laugh about or commiserate about or even just show off their love of family that didn’t exist before."
One of his favorite examples of this are dad reflex memes, for which there's an entire subreddit. If you're not familiar, they're GIFs or videos of dads "basically saving the day as their kid is about to fall off of a sofa, for instance, and just deftly catching them," Ohanian explains. "It’s these moments of tenderness that are classic dad examples, because they’re also kind of funny, right?"
Yet, former generations of dads wouldn't have shared these moments with their friends, Ohanian argues. "You never would have seen it in popular culture, and if that happened to you, and you were at poker night that week, no one’s going to be like, 'Oh yeah, earlier this week, my baby almost fell, and I caught her.' But if I have a video clip that I’ve taken on my phone, and I can share it instantly with the world, I’m going to be inclined to do it, and it creates this virtuous cycle where it normalizes this behavior of dads just watching their kids or spending time with their kids or feeding their kid or changing the diapers of their kids."
Just as viral videos normalize dad life, so too will conversation about it in the workplace, Ohanian notes. He aims to encourage "business dads" to turn idle chit-chat into discussions about kids. "Find the most powerful business dad in the room and ask them like, 'Oh hey, what’s your kid into these days?' And almost without fail, what you will see if someone who is the most powerful male executive in the room just light up at the chance to talk about how much their daughter’s really into fish or how much their son is really into paintball."
This "simple way to start changing the conversation," quite literally, will blend work life and family life for men in the workforce. "Like of course we’re proud of our families," he says. And putting that out there can "lead to real change and more equality in the workforce."
In other words, the more fatherhood is normalized on the job, the less of a burden women will carry when it comes to expecting and then navigating motherhood.
If "men and women are both taking that time off equally," then "women are no longer seen as potentially being a liability should they get pregnant," he says. Plus, dads will feel more empowered to be involved with their kids from the get-go, which can promote a stronger foundation for sharing parental responsibilities.
Ohanian also knows that actions speak louder than words, which is why he not only took his 16 weeks (the company-wide policy at Reddit, which he was leading at the time) but has plans to go to Capitol Hill in October to make his case for getting paid paternity leave on the nation's agenda.
"I do want to provide air cover," he says. "I hope I can be an example for so many business dads and professional men who want to say, 'Look, boss, Alexis did it. I want to be able to do it.'" He wants other dads to be able to point to him as an example of a father whose career only flourished further as a result of fatherhood.
And when the Reddit cofounder goes to Washington, he's going to advocate for paternity leave that's flexible in that it can be used intermittently and not all at once up front, like in Sweden. "Say you have 16 weeks of paid leave," he says. "It’s not saying you have to stop working for four months and then come back to work. What I tell all of our male employees is take as much time as you need. If this is your first kid, I would say take a good chunk up front. But let’s say it’s your fourth kid, and you’re feeling pretty good about this set up, you got your in-laws down the street. You’re good, right? Use it on the schedule that makes sense for the family."
In general, Ohanian's proposals make a whole lot of sense—for dads, for moms, for families, and for businesses. That doesn't mean, as he pointed out in The New York Times, that men don't have "career fear" and other concerns. But it's still time to get onboard.
"This sea change is happening," he says. "This is not like, 'Oh, I don’t know, maybe.' No, this sea change is happening right now, and so, blowback concerns or fears are going to be washed away, because we’re going to have a generation of professional men who are taking advantage of this, and very quickly, you get to point to more and more examples of successful business dads who have taken the time off." And the more dads who fight for and take their paternity leave, the merrier.