Taking paternity leave the ‘kiss of death’ for bankers

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Over the last few years, a number of investment banks and other large financial firms have dramatically improved employee benefits, particularly those aimed at retaining working moms and other primary caregivers. At the same time, banks have quietly increased the number of days that new fathers and non-primary caregivers can take after having a baby or adopting a child. However, using the full allotment of days provided through paternity leave – or anywhere close to them – is still heavily stigmatized in banking, no matter what the new HR policy says.

In 2015, Goldman Sachs doubled paid paternity leave from two weeks to four, for example. A year later, Citi upped second-parent leave from two weeks to eight. Bank of America went even further, extending paternity leave to 16 weeks, matching the policy for mothers and adoptive parents. Other banks have followed suit. But if you care about career progression, and there aren’t any extenuating circumstances, it’s best that fathers ignore both the new leave policies as well as the old ones, according to career coaches and industry veterans.

“It’s the kiss of death,” Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide, said of taking full paternity leave or anywhere near it.  It’s not as much of a problem with human resources – you can’t get fired for taking advantage of employee benefits – but managers and colleagues at investment banks, hedge funds and other high-paying financial firms will look down on any father taking more than a few days away from the office, likely limiting future chances of being promoted.

“I know that sounds radical, but (taking full paternity leave) is always unwelcome,” Cohen said, speaking specifically of the financial services sector. “People are paid a premium to work hard and make personal sacrifices. You won’t be perceived as disloyal, but others may begin to question your commitment.” And it’s not just managers that will quietly be stewing. Work colleagues – many of whom are fathers themselves and felt the need to return to the office after just a day or two – will likely be upset that they have more work to do that may not be reflected in their year-end bonus, Cohen said.

Indeed, interviews with more than a half-dozen bankers, traders and asset managers suggest that recent improvements to paternity leave policies haven’t resulted in fathers taking more time away. In fact, several said that staying home for more than a few days following the birth of their child was never even a consideration – and not necessarily due to any implied sense of pressure from management. It was merely an assumed behavior that they didn’t put much thought into. A few even acknowledge they were itching to get back to the office.

One trader we spoke with said he took one day off after getting his wife home from the hospital. A VP in equity sales took two days. An investment banker at a tier-1 firm said he was on work calls for much of the day following the birth of his first child. Now managing a group of juniors, the banker said he’d be “pissed” if a new father took two weeks off totally unplugged. Only one person we spoke with – a father at a big asset management firm – took more than a few days off, and that was only because he had a new job lined up.

Exceptions to the “rule”

If a new father does decide to take a significant leave of absence, they should provide management with appropriate context, like not having any family in the local area or if there are medical issues, said Cohen. “The explanation is critical,” he said. “If you come in and say: ‘I really want to be part of the family experience,’ most managers will think incredulously: ‘well so do I!’” If you make a certain amount of money, there is an expectation that you can afford nursing or nanny care, he added.

A change in culture may be on the horizon, however. A recent Pew Research study found that 82% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 support paid parental leave compared to just 55% of people over the age of 65.

More pressure on women?

Despite the positive changes in maternity leave policies and other benefits for new moms, at least a few dark corners still exist in pockets of financial services. One female working in bond sales told us she was once asked in an interview whether she planned on having children in the near future. A senior hedge fund manager said she goes out of her way to not hire women of child-bearing age to avoid one or multiple gaps in employment.

While significant parental policy changes are being made at the corporate level, it seems the message has yet to fully impact how those benefits are being perceived by management.

Have a confidential story, tip, or comment you’d like to share? Contact: btuttle@efinancialcareers.com

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