Will 2016 be the Year of Paid Parental Leave?

President Obama’s State of the Union included several plugs for Women in Technology, lauding Grace Hopper as one of our nation’s famous innovators and making the case for more girls in engineering and computer science. My favorite reference of the night, though, was to the need for paid parental leave. As I sat on my couch watching the nation’s leader reflect on this year’s accomplishments and his hopes for our country’s next decade, I thought “wouldn’t it be incredible if 2016 brought paid parental leave for all?”

http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/07/30/3465922/paid-family-leave/

The United States ranks behind almost every other country in the world when it comes to paid parental leave, indeed we’re the only developed country without paid leave. Under the Federal Medical Leave Act (FMLA), parents are eligible for twelve weeks leave to care for a new child, assuming their employer has over 50 workers and that they have been with their employer for over a year. However, with the exception of California, Rhode Island, New Jersey and a few cities expanding policies this year — there is no guarantee that this leave will be paid. Most parents simply do not have the means to go three months without pay, resulting in only one parent taking leave 0r taking less time off to bond with a new child, a truly heartbreaking decision.

Where the government has failed, the private sector has filled in some of the gaps. Recently Amazon expanded maternity and paternity leave, joining the ranks of companies like Google, Facebook, Netflix, Microsoft, Adobe, and Intel offering new parents benefits most employees can only dream of. One of the most notable aspects of Amazon’s policy was covering all full-time employees, not just the corporate employees, and indeed Netflix has recently expanded coverage to include hourly workers, but there is so much further to go. Though tech employees may feel that taking unpaid leave would be a financial burden, for low and middle class workers the stakes are much higher. With only 12% of the nation’s workers having access to paid leave, FMLA needs to go further and guarantee leave for all.

Those of us not at the parental stage of life may be wondering why parental leave matters, but it’s about so much more than children. If you care about Equal Pay, that only 14% of Fortune 500 executives are women, or that
41% of women in tech leave the field 10 years into their career,
parental leave is your ally. Disparity in parental leave is a feminist issue, affecting society in so many subtle but impactful ways from the home to the workplace.

A survey done by Elephant in the Valley, found that 52% of women shortened their leave because they thought it would negatively impact their career, and indeed that sentiment was not misplaced. The site chronicles stories of women who had their team poached while on leave or who missed out on the year-end-bonus because they were absent during annual reviews. Studies in Canada and Sweden show that new fathers taking paternity leave resulted in an increase in workforce participation of new mothers. On the negative side, one study found that “men’s earnings increased more than 6 percent when they had children, while women’s decreased 4 percent for each child they had”. Another study showed that with identical resumes except an indicator of motherhood, mothers were half as likely to be called in for an interview as other women. Needless to say, fathers did not face the same penalty.

Leave also affects home dynamics, one study showed that Fathers who took leave of two weeks or more were much more likely to be actively involved in their child’s care nine months after birth — “including feeding, changing diapers, and getting up in the night.” A Boston College report found stronger lifetime father/child relationships and increased well-being for mothers when fathers took parental leave.

The reason equal parental leave can have such a profound impact on our home and society is that by removing the mother as the default caregiver and allowing individual families to create a family plan that works best for them, we can empower men to be caregivers and destroy the stigma that women are less committed employees because of their impending motherhood.

In 2016, Implict Bias tests still show that we associate women with family and men with careers. When women make career sacrifices for their family, we think nothing of it, but when they favor their career we think of them as bad mothers. For men, the results are far more favorable. Mark Zuckerburg is publicly applauded for taking six-weeks off to bond with his child, while Youtube CEO Suzanne Wojcicki’s story as a Google’s first employee to take leave and a longtime advocate for maternity leave— is less widely shared. Marissa Mayer gets slammed for taking such little time off from work, despite her company’s current crisis — while Male CEOs who skip leave, don’t make the headlines.

The premise behind the title of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is that women tend to lean back from work as motherhood approaches and never quite regain their status, resulting in a workplace inequality. But if we focus on this limited view, we leave women to solve the problems on their own. What if 2016 was the year that men flocked to parental leave in solidarity and transformed parenthood into a gender-neutral choice for all?

To learn more about the fight for paid parental leave, visit: http://www.dol.gov/featured/paid-leave.

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