This Is What Progressive Parental Leave Looks Like

It’s Not That Complicated. No One Is Doing It.

While federal requirements for paid parental leave is the only way to ensure all parents can take time off after the birth of a child, forward-thinking companies can and should lead the way. And many do. Facebook announced a four-month paid parental leave policy in 2015. It was notable not just for its duration but also because they offered it to all parents, not just birth mothers. Netflix offers a whopping twelve months of paid leave for both sexes.

I gave myself a thought experiment: what would truly progressive parental leave look like? Not surprisingly, more generous in terms of paid time off than the vast majority of US companies. Flexible policies that allow families to align time off with personal and professional needs. A company culture that encourages employees to actually take the leave offered to them. And most importantly, ensuring that policies are taken advantage of equally by all parents. I elaborate on my current thinking below.

First, I’m inclined to say six months should be the floor for a paid parental leave policy. There’s something important about the six-month mark: by then, most babies will have started eating solids. The introduction of solids marks an important shift because many children are exclusively breastfed until then. For me, there was something viscerally dissonant about being away from my children when I represented their sole source of sustenance. Beyond that, there are significant challenges to maintaining milk supply when pumping instead of having your baby nurse directly. Additionally, by six months, most babies have gained enough weight to sleep through the night without a feeding. Until then, the physical and mental exhaustion that most parents experience is tremendous.

The appropriate duration for parental leave policies will differ by organization. Large corporations are best positioned to offer generous leaves. An entire year would be the gold standard; it’s exciting to see Netflix with such a generous policy in place. The Gates Foundation discovered an unexpected benefit to offering a full year: temporarily backfilling parent’s positions enabled growth and diversification opportunities for employees across the organization [1].

Second, it’s not just how long parents can take time off that matters. For all organizations, regardless of the duration of leave offered, it is essential that companies have equivalent parental leave policies for both men and women. Different leave policies for mothers versus fathers creates an implicit discrimination against women. They create an environment where the cost to the organization is greater for one gender vs. the other. Differentiated policies also risk engendering a culture where men get promoted faster than women and are considered “more committed” to their jobs. Moreover, longer leave policies for birth mothers establish a tenor at home where they are the more competent parent. This, in turn, seeds a difficult-to-break cycle of the woman being the default caregiver. Furthermore, it hardly seems fair to same sex couples or heterosexual couples using surrogates that only birth mothers get offered generous paid leave when a child is born.

Any company that is serious about diversity and gender equality should be aware of this implicit discrimination and offer equal leave policies to all parents regardless of who gives birth. A recent ReCode survey of a dozen major tech companies showed that only three of them — Facebook, Netflix, and Twitter — offer the same paid leave policy for both mothers and fathers [2].

Third, parents should be able to take parental leave over the course of their child’s first year, even two, rather than all at once. Many companies already do this. It is important that families have the flexibility to utilize parental leave as is appropriate for their circumstances. It won’t make sense for all parents to max out on their parental leave all at once. Parents are committed to not just their families, they are also committed to the teams that they work with. The demands of one’s job will rarely align perfectly with the timing of the birth of a child. There are personal considerations as well, such as when is optimal for one’s spouse to be in or out of work, or aligning with times when older children are out of school. Giving parents the flexibility to spread time off across a baby’s first year or two enables bonding with a new child while acknowledging heterogenous professional and personal needs. It also carries the potential to lead to less impact on organizational outcomes and higher employee satisfaction. Spotify is a particularly interesting example of this, giving both parents six months of fully paid leave which can be taken anytime across the child’s first three years [3].

Fourth, what matters is that leave is actually taken equivalently by both men and women. Having a single flexible policy offered to all parents in place is not enough. At the Gates Foundation, twice as many women than men take the full year off. Salesforce offers 26 weeks of paid leave to primary caregivers and 12 weeks to secondary ones [4]. Differentiating between primary and secondary caregivers creates cost efficiencies for the organization, but is likely to lead to the implicit discrimination described above. It’s hard to imagine that women won’t be the lead parent most of the time. If the result is that women take more leave than men, then inequality gets perpetuated. Companies must put in place additional measures to give teeth to the policies they put in place.

To do this, it is critical that companies ensure a culture that encourages parents, especially men, to take the parental leave that is available to them. More often than not, the opposite is true. If leadership isn’t maxing out on their paid leave, it sends the signal that taking the full time off could be perceived negatively. I appreciate that Mark Zuckerberg took two months off after the recent birth of his daughter. But that was only half of what Facebook offered their employees. I have little doubt it was the right decision for him, balancing personal and professional needs. Still, as CEO, he’s the one setting the example for the entire company. Something should have been done to counter the cultural impact, and perhaps it was. For example, a note explaining his decision and stressing his support for parents taking full leave could have partially offset signaling issues.

Additionally, target metrics for how much time off parents take would ensure that parental leave policies are more than just lip service. When tracking such metrics, companies should strive for parity between men and women.

These then are the key components to truly progressive, gender equalizing parental leave: 1) paid leave for all parents for six months to a year; 2) the flexibility to take leave over a period of time rather than all at once; 3) a culture that encourages all parents to take the leave that is offered to them; and 4) metrics that ensure gender parity for not just policy but also outcomes.

Current policies are simply not generous enough. Parents need more than three or four months with a newborn child. Families deserve better than the status quo.

But more generosity is not enough. Women will continue to be disadvantaged in the workplace if parents of both genders do not act equally when it comes to taking time off after the birth of a child. Vast work remains to be done for us to achieve the equality between men and women at home that is required to achieve equality in the workplace as well. Ensuring that parental leave is offered and taken equivalently by both sexes is an important step in the right direction.

Steward and Curator at Dent. IG: @developingjen