Silicon Valley’s Latest Innovation? Paternity Leave
Tech companies across the country are rolling out generous policies for new dads, raising the bar for the rest of corporate America. Will they start a working father revolution? To find out, I collected stories from the scrappy front lines: the handful of dads who are boldly redefining their roles at home and at the office.
Click. It’s just a normal, everyday click: the front door latching shut. But when that click is a father leaving home to go to work — after too little paternity leave, or none at all — it echoes loudly. Both for the mother, left alone with a new baby, and for the whole of American business culture.
When I heard that click seven years ago, the summer my first son was born, I knew that my husband, who was finishing his first year of residency after medical school, didn’t have much of a choice. He’d stayed home for three days — he’d fought to get a week but was called back in early — straightening up the messes I’d made, cooking dinner, holding our son long enough for me to take a shower. We were still in panic mode and hadn’t yet gotten into a rhythm. My milk was just coming in. Then click went the door, and my heart boomed with anxiety. I watched the clock and measured my day in three-hour breastfeeding cycles until he reappeared at 7 that night, a bag of soft-shell crabs in hand to cook for dinner. “Don’t worry,” he told me, attempting reassurance and loosening his tie, “Everything’s fine. Life hasn’t actually changed all that much.” I had no words.
In those seven years, life has changed. Everyone from Goldman Sachs to the U.S. Army has improved its paternity leave offerings. But the policies — typically more available to the professional elite, as we learned from the outcry over the hundreds of uncovered Netflix DVD workers — are being shouted from the rooftops of Silicon Valley in particular: Twitter now gives new fathers 10 weeks of paid leave; Google offers 12 weeks paid if Dad is the primary caregiver; Facebook clocks in at 17 paid weeks; Adobe will soon offer 16 weeks paid leave for fathers who are primary caregivers; and on and on. These double-digit leaves aren’t yet universal in Silicon Valley, but even newer ventures are proving their commitment to paying fathers, not just asking them to take unpaid leave. Medium, in the interest of full disclosure, offers new dads four weeks paid.
“Companies all over are figuring out that paternity leave is important,” says Scott Behson, PhD, professor of management at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and the author of The Working Dad’s Survival Guide. And tech-industry fathers — whose benefits departments are paving the way — now have the unique opportunity to lead by example: The growing handful who do take their full allotted leaves might just change the operating system of the American family.
Aaron Boodman, an independent software engineer, had been at Google for nine years when his daughter was born 18 months ago. He’d planned to take a month or so of paternity leave, but just before he was due to go back, Google increased the company policy to 12 weeks. He leapt at the chance. “I heard about the change through the grapevine,” he told me. “I can’t even remember if I asked. I just took it all.”
At Apple, Eric Smith, a senior engineer in architecture who runs a lab, took 12 weeks of leave after the births of his daughter, 3, and his son, 9 months.
And Edward Ho, an engineering director at Twitter, is another example. His almost two-year-old son was born when he was working at a startup that was eventually bought by Twitter. “The two other founders were fathers, and we all really valued family time. We all left to go home for dinner every night,” he says. The three partners timed the launch of their product around the birth of Ho’s son, even moving the launch date when the baby came a few weeks early to give him more time at home. Now Ho’s wife is eight months pregnant with the couple’s second child, and he says he’s “planning to take six weeks, at least,” away from his role at Twitter.
Yet all three of these men are outliers within companies where, for fathers, taking longer leaves isn’t yet the norm. “Most of my peers take a lot shorter,” says Boodman. What made him so brave? “It was a dire situation at home,” he says (more on that in a minute), and he was in a position not to worry too much financially. Had he started at Google three years later than he did, he told me, it would have been a whole other story.
As for Smith, he says it was actually the nature of his work that made him comfortable bucking the company’s culture. “Right when my daughter was born, I transitioned my position away from a management role and into a technical one — for reasons not about fatherhood, actually,” he shares. “I’d had a fairly large team I was managing before, and it would have been totally impossible to take the time if I’d been in that role.”
For this story, I talked to several fathers who’d taken substantial leaves — who couldn’t imagine not having taken the time, in retrospect. Like Boodman, Smith, and Ho, they had this in common: They were among the vanguard. It wasn’t yet normal for fathers they worked with to take their employers up on what they were offered. At least not fully.
(Actually, Boodman, Smith, and Ho very sweetly had one other thing in common: New fatherhood hit them unexpectedly hard with its emotions and challenges. “I was horribly unprepared,” admits Ho. Says Boodman: “The first six months of Abigail’s life, I’ll never forget, were just brutal. I got to see how exhausting and how isolating it is. When I thought I had to go back earlier than I did, I was just like, I don’t even know how that would be possible.”)
Most commonly, fathers at private companies across sectors that offer paid paternity leave take about two weeks, according to a study from Boston College Center for Work and Family. Claim data from The Hartford, the insurance company, skews a bit higher, at 17.6 days. And anecdotally, that’s about how it goes for many new fathers in the hyper-competitive tech world too. Two or three weeks. Despite the generous benefits available, it’s still rare for these fathers to take the double-digit weeks of leave that they’re offered.
A lot is riding on these tech-sector dads. In their booming, unstuffy industry — an industry, by the way, that is financially stable enough to allow its most talented workers some flexibility — they have a real opportunity to innovate. And if they don’t take advantage in this moment? The trickle down of paid paternity leave to other fields may be just that, a very slow trickle. “I’m not sure that the extended pay benefits that we see in tech will be picked up by other industries in the near term, but I do think we’ll see an ongoing increase in unpaid paternity leave in the next year,” predicts The Hartford’s Mike Dunst, assistant vice president, Absence Management.
The men I interviewed acknowledged their good fortune. “I have a really unique skill set, and it comes with some privileges,” Smith admits. Here’s the problem: As outliers, they’re not always that visible to impressionable colleagues as they make these choices to prioritize family. Often, Smith will work just a portion of his day at the office, and the rest at home at night. He has junior engineers whom he calls his “de facto employees,” but they’re not looking to him in the same way that the direct reports he used to have in his management position did, he says.
Still, these tech paternity leave mavericks are making a conscious effort to influence company-wide expectations for new dads wherever they can. Shifting workplace culture as a father is a two-part effort, they say. It starts with things like being open about taking leave, or by having baby pictures on your desk, or cutting out of work early for your kid’s baseball game — all stuff that should be natural fits for the freewheeling culture that’s so celebrated in tech. That’s part one. Part two? Doing excellent work. “You can’t be a good role model on the parenting stuff if you’re not respected at work for doing a good job,” Behson says.
At Apple, says Smith, “there’s this weird culture where you’re not allowed to say ‘no’ to things.” But he does, openly — especially when it comes to scheduling meetings that conflict with family obligations. And in his lab, Smith says, “we do accomplish more while spending significantly fewer hours in the office.” (Smith has little patience for others in the Valley who claim to work 100-hour weeks but spend many of those hours playing office foosball.) He recently told a friend at work that he should take paternity leave, and “take it all, and take a lot.” Fatherhood is the ultimate perspective-maker, it seems, for some former workaholics.
Ho aims to inject his department at Twitter with the warm family-friendly experience he got back in the day at his start-up. “I think it’s really important, as an engineering leader, to take leave and to perpetuate a culture where we value everybody’s personal time and their families,” he says. And, he adds, that requires taking concrete actions, like going on parental leave and using vacation time. “You can have a leader who says it’s great to take family vacation and unplug, but then they have to actually take vacation themselves, for everyone else to feel like they can too.”
In talking about balance and leave — with their colleagues, and here, with me — these men are waving their father flags in the face of an industry that, as Boodman puts it, “is just a bunch of really competitive people constantly upping their game.”
Dave Cohen — who, after his second child, took his full leave from his job at Google as a technical lead and engineering manager — has a rosier explanation for the hesitation many men who work in tech experience about taking full paternity leaves: “I think a lot of people feel like they’re just so lucky to have a job at Google to begin with. You know, Google is so good to people.” So take them up on that goodness, he implores: Use your leave.
Soon after his return, Cohen did that thing that women have been maligned for since maternity leave was invented: He came back and quit. Cohen says he left, in part, because of a reorg that had happened in his absence. But mostly, he just didn’t want to miss the milestones he’d been unable to witness with his first daughter. “I earned this time, and I realize how special it is,” he says. “When I started at Google, a lot of us were 20-something kids. Right now, it’s a time when a lot of people in this field are maturing, having families, and realizing just how important that is.” Some former colleagues have told him that they’re jealous of the leap he took. “They say, ‘I wish I were strong enough to do that,’” he says.
Cohen left Google with no set work plan, purposefully, but was soon offered a new role at Facebook. He negotiated for a start date in early 2016. Facebook was willing to wait all those months, I asked? “Well, at first they weren’t excited, but I said I wanted to spend time with my family, and they seemed to understand,” Cohen says. “They’ve been super accommodating.” It’s a long game, career and fatherhood, even in a world as fast as tech. Oh, and did he mention, Cohen adds, “the recruiter I was working with was pregnant. She just took her maternity leave, actually.”
As I was writing this story on one of the last gorgeous days of summer, my son, now seven, ran up to me on the beach and stood over my laptop, raining down sand. “What are you working on?” he asked me. I cringed, trying not to fuss at him and caught mid-paragraph, but also wanting to explain to him the importance of paternity leave and involved fathers and how I truly hope we’re at a watershed moment right now that will change all of this for him when he’s a new dad one day. But I didn’t have to:
“Hey big guy, Mommy’s working,” my husband called to him, rescuing me. “Come on, let’s go jump in the waves together. It’s Daddy’s turn. Right now it’s Daddy’s turn.”
Lauren Smith Brody is a writer, producer, editor, and the author of the upcoming book The Fifth Trimester (Doubleday, spring 2017), a guide to the first three months back at work for new mothers.
Medium is convening a conversation about work, parenthood, and how the two mesh — or don’t — in our lives. To get involved, follow the Working Parents tag and the publication, and help us expand the dialogue by writing a post or a response.