By Jenni Frazer for the Daily Telegraph November 9 2015
Meet Josh Levs – the male feminist who sued his boss for paternity leave
Josh Levs made headlines when he sued Time Warner Inc for gender discrimination over paternity leave. He tells Jenni Frazer why he’s now trying to change businesses’ attitudes towards fathers
“From the moment I became a father,” says Josh Levs, “I tried to organise my life so I’d be home as much as possible”. Levs, 42, was a reporter for CNN, based in Atlanta, Georgia, who embraced “dadhood” in every way he knew how – including becoming CNN’s “dad columnist” on many of its programmes.
So it came as a huge shock to Levs and his wife, Melanie Lasoff, when their third child, a daughter, was on the way in 2013. CNN refused to alter its policy on parental leave for fathers, which effectively extended more paternity leave to adoptive fathers than to biological parents.
Now Levs – an award-winning journalist who left CNN to write a groundbreaking book, All In – has become a fierce campaigner for the rights of fathers, and for parental leave to become national policy in America rather than something decided at the whim of individual businesses. (Only 14 per cent of US companies offer paid paternity leave). Named as one of the top 10 “male feminists” by the Financial Times, Levs is bringing his message to Oxford this week at the annual Power Shift conference.
“Our workplaces in America were designed in the Mad Men era,” says Levs, “but actually, my whole generation grew up as the recipients of feminism. My teachers and family definitely taught us that we could all be anything. Girls were just as smart and capable as boys, but it seems we all lived in a bubble, believing that gender equality had taken root.”
Levs and his wife – whom he met when she, also a journalist, was sent to interview him for her paper – married in 2003. From the very beginning, he says, they felt it was important “to have the conversation” about who would do what in the home and how they would divide child-rearing and parenting when it came to having a family.
“We knew we wanted three children, and my girlfriend – actually, we had this conversation before we even got engaged – knew that I wanted to stay at home and help as much as possible. We could never have known the ridiculousness of what we ran into with our third child.”
By the time their daughter was on the way, the couple already had two sons. Each child was born with “fanfare and drama”, as Levs puts it: the first had to have emergency heart surgery and the second was actually born in Levs’ arms on the floor of their bedroom, arriving too fast to get to the hospital for the birth.
“It became clear,” says Levs, “that I would be needed at home after our new baby’s birth.” With the first two children, despite the “drama”, Levs “hadn’t pushed it” when it came to extending his statutory two weeks’ parental leave.
But then he began to look into CNN’s policy and discovered that Time Warner, which owned CNN, had a curious anomaly: “Virtually any parent had the option of 10 weeks’ leave after the arrival of a new baby. Biological mothers got this, and so did mums and dads who would care for a child who joined the family through surrogacy or adoption. But there was one exception: a man could not get those weeks for his own biological child born to the child’s biological mother”.
Levs thought this loophole must have been a mistake. “How could this be that CNN would give 10 weeks’ paid leave to everyone except a man who had impregnated his own wife? So I looked into how to challenge this protocol. I told our Human Resources Department that this must have been an oversight”.
But Levs got no response, despite repeated attempts to obtain an answer. And then, in her 35th week of pregnancy, Melanie Levs developed acute pre-eclampsia and was rushed into hospital. The birth was induced.
The baby was healthy, though tiny, but when she and her mother came home, Levs was eating into his meagre paternity leave, looking after his recuperating wife, two boisterous little boys aged five and eight, and a premature baby. “Eleven days after the birth, while I was holding our four-pound preemie girl, that’s when work said no, I couldn’t extend my leave.” There was no explanation.
So Levs, who had worked for CNN for 11 years at that time, appealed to the chief executive of Time Warner, the parent company. He said he would “look into this.” But still nothing happened. Eventually it became clear that nothing would happen – unless Levs made a very public challenge to CNN’s policy.
He chose to do it by charging Time Warner with gender discrimination in the workplace, filing his charge through America’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). “I’m not giving up without a fight,” he said.
Parental leave in America – except in three states, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island – remains “a business decision which varies from company to company.” Levs had been working in a department of around 20 people, with slightly more men than women. At no point, he says, did anyone suggest that there were insufficient staff to cover his work if he went on extended paternal leave.
In fact, within hours of making his EEOC challenge public, a bemused Levs watched as “everything went wild. I felt that I had unleashed the floodgates of love”. American media, both traditional and social, leapt on the story – though ironically CNN itself failed to cover it. News agencies called, and Levs’ case was discussed on mainstream TV programmes.
Support poured in to Levs from both the political right and left as men and women argued that there needed to be a fairer national policy and a recognition that American workplaces were “simply not geared up or prepared for fathers to be the care-givers,” he says.
“But it is happening in so many families across the country. Gradually I understood that what galvanised so many people was the understanding that we are all in this together, all of us against this questionable workplace structure.”
Eventually, the media storm died down and Levs had to go back to work “because I couldn’t afford not to. And my colleagues were amazing. They hugged me in the hallways and were openly and effusively supportive”.
While there is no clear pattern for the length of time that the EEOC takes to consider a complaint, in the Levs case things moved fairly quickly. At first, Time Warner “added a third paid week that applied to dads who have kids the traditional way.” Other fathers elsewhere in America began challenging their company policies.
And then, in October 2014, just as Levs’ daughter turned one, Time Warner overhauled its entire benefits policy. Both paternity leave for natural, biological fathers, and maternity leave for biological mothers, were extended, although the restructuring has been partially at the expense of adoptive or surrogate parents, whose leave has been curtailed.
It has been “a happy ending for other families”, says Levs, although he and Melanie did not benefit directly. But now – insisting that he is very pro-business, and looking for a better way to manage the work-life balance – Levs has left CNN and with his book, All In, is making a powerful argument for a national re-thinking of attitudes to families and work.
“Yes, there is a risk that I may be unemployable because of this campaign, but it’s a risk I was willing to take. I’m being consulted by a lot of companies and I think that the book is opening the door to the building of stronger policies. It was when I got support across the board politically, from Republicans as well as Democrats, that I knew I had done the right thing. And though the change [at CNN] didn’t happen in time for me, I am getting more time at home and it is an amazing feeling. I will make sure that I manage to hold on to this”.
Josh Levs’ book, All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families and Businesses – And How We Can Fix It Together is published by Harper Collins. He will be speaking at the Oxford Power Shift conference between November 8 and 11.