By now the embarassing fact that the United States is the only industrialized nation on earth that does not offer government mandated parental leave plays like a broken, well-worn record. Yes, when it comes to having kids in the US, parents and women in particular (who represent more than 50 percent of the workforce) get a supremely raw deal. Just 11 percent of Americans employed by private industry have access to some sort of paid family leave. Furthermore, companies with under 50 employees are not obligated to grant any leave of absence at all under FMLA. Routines and policies established in the 1900s when men went to work and women’s work was in the home remain largely unchanged. This is despite the siesmic shift of women entering the workforce and modern day parents sharing child care duties.
That means that for far too many an agonising choice has to be made between nurturing your career 0r your newborn. Furthermore, stigma runs deep from simply enquiring what your employer’s parental leave benefits are to the ‘letting the side down’ status all too often attributed to those who return to work but dare to go home at five to care for their new family (working conditions for the returning parent being a secondary mission we need to address). Any sentient being would agree this is utter bullshit for any member of a modern society to be subjected to.
Change Is Inevitable
In the United States, the issue of paid family and medical leave sits way down the backlog in partisan governmental gridlock. As such it’s easy to shrug and resign yourself with a “well what can I do about it?”. Well it turns out as an employee or a business owner there is quite a lot you can and should do about it. That’s because the impetus for change is coming not from politicians, but bottom up from private enterprise. In the last year or two we’ve seen huge progress coming from companies, especially in the tech sector with Google, Spotify, Netflix and Microsoft bumping their parental leave benefits. It is quite clearly on all of us to fix this and to choose what side of history we want to stand on, because this change will come.
A Personal Experience
My personal experience with US parental leave came from having to drop our second son off at daycare at three months of age so that my wife could return to work in order to keep her job. In fact, given her company had under 50 employees she was ‘lucky’ to get any leave at all. Having moved from the UK a few years earlier where we had our first child and benefitted from 12 months of parental leave it was an emotional shock. I was painfully aware that my emotional unease was a fraction of that which my wife had to endure alongside the physical demands of working and nursing our child.
It all felt so horribly wrong and I became viscerally aware (ashamedly late in life) of how neatly arranged the world was for men. This was already something the 2008 financial crisis had already irrefutably demonstrated. You know, the one in which cities and countries were bankrupted, in which by 2009 20 million people lost their jobs and because of which by 2010 in Europe alone 10,000 took their own lives. Not one of the largely male, anglo saxon bankers went to jail for the crime of the century. Not. One. We live in a world which is a carefully arranged systematic fix. It therefore follows that if you have any kind of systematic responsibility (such as being a company owner) then you’re either part of perpetuating it, or you can be part of addressing it. I took the red pill.
Provoking Change in the Creative Industry
My company ustwo is a digital product studio in the creative industry (we make digital stuff). For us culture is not a construct, it is the company, just as our people are. We have well over 30 nationalities represented amongst 300 people in studios across four countries. This includes Sweden, which has taught our group a great deal about the value of work life balance and of state support for parents. We brought those European sensibilities with us to the US when we established our New York studio three years ago and formed our policies and benefits. Quite honestly, despite being well under 50 people when we got here, we considered it inhuman not to offer meaningful parental leave benefits.
ustwo benefits from a few things. We’re independent so can and often do say what we feel, we enjoy a modest reputation for the work we have put into the world and we have made a lot of solid friends in the industry. That allows us to provoke positive change.
The creative industry which we are a part of is notorious for poor work life balance and awash with agencies displaying unhealthy Stockholm-syndrome like commitment to the brief. The industry engages in outrageous hypocrisy and double standards in demanding absolute commitment to the cause from its people whilst simultaneously utterly failing to support those very people through the most significant event of their lives. Save to say parental leave benefits in the creative sector in the US are pretty terrible.
We saw an opportunity to contribute to improving them so a team of passionate ustwobies quickly assembled to formulate and launch the Pledge Parental Leave movement. Pledge Parental Leave is a hugely important movement for the creative industry in the US to meet the human needs of its employees.
Setting a Standard
Pledge Parental Leave exists to encourage companies in the creative industries in the United States to guarantee their employees a meaningful minimum standard of parental leave benefits. For the Pledge Parental Leave movement that is based on four requirements.
- Paid Leave x 3 Months. Fully paid leave for the primary caregiver so they don’t have to make a choice between no income or nurturing their newborn in those insanely precious first few months.
- Medical Coverage x 3 Months. Uninterrupted medical insurance coverage so they don’t have to worry about the cost of taking care of themselves on top of the cost of their baby.
- Job Security x 6 Months. Return to the same or similar role guaranteed so that a new parent does not have to choose between their job or their child after only 3 months. Those extra 3 months, even unpaid are invaluable.
- Open Policy. A commitment by companies to making their policy openly available online so the stigma attached to existing or potential employees asking about parental leave benfits can be stamped out.
It’s a Win Win
I am speaking directly to other business owners here…
You do not even need to engage with the moral argument or see the matrix for the case on this one. Committing your company to pledge parental leave is an absolute no brainer at every level. Paying for parental leave for your staff and retaining them actually makes sound financial sense compared to the cost of losing and having to replace them. It also boosts employee loyalty and company morale.
You have the privilege of systematic responsibility and you can be the person who effects this change to absolutely everyone’s benefit (yes including you). If you truly expect commitment from your pe0ple then honor that by extending the same in return by supporting them through their life events. If you are running a company turning over millions of dollars in revenue and you can’t do something for your people that is so simple, powerful and cost neutral then you should consider the longevity of the foundational values your business is built on.
Our Founding Partners
In order to create a coalition of launch partners we reached out to friends and companies we respected in related branches of the creative industry in New York and the US. These were people we believed cared about their people. Almost immediately it became about more than just us with 11 of the 19 companies we reached out to joining the coalition.
Some already met or exceeded the pledge conditions, some reviewed their benefits to meet them and some established policies for the first time (precisely the intention, — positively supported change). As such ustwo is proud to be part of a launch coalition of some of the leading Product, Branding, Startup Studio, Strategy and Innovation design companies in the industry today:
With co:, Betaworks, Doberman, Dots, IDEO, Made By Many, Moment, Smart Design, ustwo, VeryDay & Wolff Olins we have the leading firms in the creative industry setting the standard for us all. We aim to support the companies who did not and could not meet the pledge conditions as well as any others in the process in any way we can. The aim is that the movement itself will create greater awareness and generate popular and peer pressure to drive change. Our aim is to help our branch of the creative industry up its game and then do the same for the advertising and marketing sector and beyond. Ultimately we would like PPL not to have to exist with the requirements stipulated and supported at the federal legistative level. But for now this is how we can all play our part.
What We’re Asking
Pledge Parental Leave is about all of us in the creative industry in the US pulling together to create better conditions for each other. So our ask of you is this:
- Make this a hot topic. If everyone’s discussing it in your company then it’s hard to ignore or dismiss.
- Get in people’s faces, provoke positive change. We can’t do this with our hands in our pockets.
- Foster understanding by sharing your personal experiences with parental leave, both positive and negative.
- Retweet, share, like Pledge Parental Leave on your social channels.
- Visit the website www.pledgepl.org and share the resources with your HR/People department.
- follow and retweet the twitter handle www.twitter.com/pledgepl
- Share this article and the PPL website with your company leaders.
- If you are a company leader then explore the win win case and please do the right thing.
I’m proud that we’ve been able to bring together the leading creative companies in the field as our launch partners — what a statement of intent! However, this situation is not going to correct itself unless we all rock the boat together. So please build on this start and join us in the fight to bring a meaningful standard of parental leave benefits to the creative industries in the US.