Don’t Leave Parental Leave Behind

Last week, I wrote about hiring underrepresented groups in the workforce. I focused on issues and strategies specific to several populations. There’s one group I didn’t include, though. That’s parents. One challenge that specifically faces new parents in the US workforce is the lack of paid parental leave policies. That includes time off for birthing mothers, their partners, and adoptive parents. In this blog, I’ll provide an overview of the problem and why it needs to be addressed.

Where We Stand

In 2020, SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, conducted research on paid leave in the US. They found that just over half (55%) of employers offer paid maternity leave. However, only 45% offered paid paternity leave. The main reason employers didn’t offer paid leave was cost. This really points to the fact that the United States does not have any federal funding allocated to supporting paid parental leave. Paid leave is only mandated (and funded) by a handful of states.

In light of the research findings, SHRM believes that the federal government needs to do more. They recommend that the government provide a funding source to support more employers in offering paid leave. That’s exactly what President Biden has been advocating for. However, it’s not a simple task to change US policy, especially when the price tag is high. At present, The Family and Medical Leave Act only entitles employees to 12 weeks off without pay. Who knows when paid leave will become law?

In the meantime, you may be lucky enough to have paid parental leave. If so, check out this tool from SHRM. Although it uses slightly outdated data (from 2016), this lets you compare your organization’s leave policies to others. You can also use this tool to evaluate organizations if you’re job searching. This tool uses the following averages: 41 days for maternity leave, 22 days for paternity leave, and 36 days for adoption leave. And though things have improved a bit in the last five years, there’s still a lot to be done.

Paternity Leave Lags Behind

father and baby handsAs the data above indicates, paternity leave typically comes in second place after maternity leave. It’s also controversial! When US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg took paternity leave in 2021, he was criticized. Colleagues claimed he didn’t need the leave, perhaps because he wasn’t a birthing parent. (He and his partner adopted twins.) Just this year, though, Twitter’s CEO announced his plan for paternity leave and faced the opposite backlash. He planned to take “a few weeks” of leave only. This dad was criticized for taking too little time off. Professionals feel that executives need to set the tone for their employees. That’s what Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg did in 2017. He took paternity leave to normalize the practice at his company.

Evidently, there’s a debate in the workforce. Some feel that paternity leave is a critical benefit to offer working parents. Others aren’t convinced. In fact, recent data from the US Census demonstrates a definite need. According to the data, two thirds of new fathers take some kind of leave in the first three months. Unfortunately, though, paternity leave isn’t equally accessible to all. With many women going without paid maternity leave, men feel the pressure to maintain their income. This means that men are very unlikely to take unpaid parental leave. In fact, men are more likely to use paid vacation days as a substitute for paternity leave. It’s pretty clear that working parents, mother and fathers alike, need better leave policies.

How the US Measures Up

Believe it or not, this is not a global issue. Both maternity and paternity leave are much more readily accessible in almost every country than in the United States. This interactive map from the World Policy Analysis Center makes the issue clear. The US is one of just a handful of countries without paid maternity leave!

Many other countries offer a full year of leave or more. This Washington Post article gives more detail. In Sweden, by contrast, new parents are guaranteed 480 days (over a year!) of paid leave. That goes for parents who welcome a new child via birth or adoption. Sweden has also introduced legislation that is successfully increasing the rate at which fathers take paternity leave. Likewise, Estonia offers over 1.5 years of paid parental leave. Clearly, the US is lagging.

The US is totally out of line with both international norms and recommendations. The World Health Organization (WHO) underscores the importance of paid leave for working parents’ health. That’s why the International Labour Organization (ILO) recommends a minimum of 14 weeks for paid maternity leave. The ILO also supports the SHRM recommendation I mentioned above for government funding. That’s because if organizations have to pay for parental leave, they might discriminate in hiring. When the government funds parental leave, organizations are more free to offer it.

Why Paid Leave Matters

It might seem like it’s not all that important to offer paid parental leave. After all, plenty of US companies seem to be going on without it. However, that’s just not the case. As I explained in this earlier blog about engaging stakeholders, companies need to listen to what’s expected of them. An organization’s stakeholders include the employees. I’ve also noted that stakeholders expect companies to practice Corporate Social Responsibility. That means making a positive impact on the people they affect, like employees. Bottom line: companies need to focus on supporting their employees. Unfortunately, plenty of companies are just contributing to the challenges working moms face. It’s time they start supporting working parents instead.

According to SHRM, offering paid parental leave benefits organizations too. For example, boasting this benefit helps companies attract and retain talent. In addition, paid parental leave improves employees’ wellness and engagement at work. You can bet that will translate into improved productivity! For an example of how maternity leave affects health, check out this research. Basically, longer maternity leave has been tied to reduced rates of depression in working moms.

This Washington Post article also points to some big picture benefits of paid parental leave. First, it paves the way for more women to enter and remain in the workforce. It also gives partners time off to support mothers through tough transitions. Moreover, paid parental leave rewards employees who are caring for the next generation. People need to have the resources to have and care for kids. Otherwise, there won’t be a workforce in the future!

Challenges You’d Rather Leave Behind

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as organizations just offering paid parental leave. This research demonstrated that employees who take parental leave are perceived as less committed than those who don’t. Sadly, that perception grows stronger, the longer an employee is off. However, this research also found that “favorable policies” in the workplace decrease this effect. In other words, employees might legitimately fear that they’d be looked down upon for taking time off. But if their employers would offer more generous parental leave, there’d be less to fear!

Finally, it may not seem easy to return from parental leave. Perhaps that’s why some new parents don’t take it, even if it’s available. That’s why HBR has compiled a guide for returning to work after parental leave. It advises employees to be honest and open with both manager and coworkers about their expectations. Employees can follow best practices for clear communication to indicate that they’re still committed to their work. Then, just set new, realistic goals and keep moving your work forward!

Hopefully, paid parental leave will become widely available soon to all working parents. When it does, I hope all parents will take full advantage of it. After all, who wouldn’t want to return to work healthier, happier, and set up for success?