The Case for Paid Parental Leave

Team of senior business people smiling togetherBy Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

In a 2008 examination of 21 high-income countries, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) found that the U.S. ranked 20th in terms of generosity of parental leave and policy designs for couples – just ahead of dead last Switzerland. And the situation hasn’t improved much since. When Australia began its Paid Parental Scheme last year, the United States became the only member of the 34-country Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that does not offer some form of paid leave to working parents after the birth or adoption of a child.

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for certain family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave. The FMLA does not apply to all employers or to all employees, however. According to the CEPR report, “about 40 percent of American workers are not eligible for FMLA, and only about a quarter of U.S. employers offer fully paid maternity-related leave of any kind.

In many ways, work/family debates are as much about class as they are about gender – highly educated and relatively wealthy professional women likely fare better in that they can afford high quality child care. Yet, in the U.S., the lack of maternity benefits is one of the few things that affects all working mothers, at all income levels, in all stages of their careers. But this is not just a women’s issue and discussing it as such only makes progress more unlikely. Only 50 nations offer paid leave for fathers and, though paid parental leave is not mandated in the U.S., there are some state-run programs, such as California and New Jersey.

When work/life balance was framed as a women’s issue, progress was slow, but as it continues to be framed as a topic that affects all workers, flexible work options are becoming more prevalent. How can we continue to restructure the debate – and the reality – so women, men, families, and employers win?

No Longer a “Women’s Issue”

Restructuring the conversation on paid leave so that it’s not specific to women can be difficult because this is something that has historically been perceived as mainly affecting women. The National Partnership for Women & Families recently reported that only about half of all first-time moms in the United States are able to take any paid leave after childbirth and just a fifth of working women with young children receive leave with full pay.

But the U.S.’ lack of paid leave isn’t just an attack on women; it’s a disadvantage for all families with working parents. It’s important not to lose sight of that for many reasons, the biggest of which is we’re actually reinforcing detrimental stereotypes.

In a recent interview, John Schmitt, co-author of the CEPR report, explained that the problem when dads aren’t offered an equal amounts of parental leave as moms (if at all), it completely reinforces the cultural expectation that women take care of children and men continue to work.

Dismantling Myths

Clearly, this is no small task, especially when the assumption exists that the United States’ lack of paid parental leave boils down to economics. But that’s an incorrect assumption to make, says Jody Heymann, founding director of the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University, with her book Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth that We Can’t Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone.

Current U.S. policies actually make us less competitive and less productive as a society, she suggests. In her unprecedented research, Heymann found that 14 of the world’s 15 most competitive countries provide paid sick leave, 13 guarantee paid leave for new mothers, 12 provide paid leave for new fathers, 11 provide paid leave to care for children’s health needs, eight provide paid leave to care for adult family members, and seven guarantee breastfeeding breaks to nursing mothers on the job. At the federal level, the United States does not offer anything close to these benefits.

Heymann says that the world’s most successful and competitive nations are providing the supports the United States lacks, without harming competitiveness. “Globally, we found that none of these working conditions are linked with lower levels of economic competitiveness or employment. There simply is no negative relationship at all between decent working conditions and competitiveness or job creation. In fact, we found that a number of these guarantees are associated with increased competitiveness. Ensuring a floor of decent working conditions is crucial for the majority of Americans. The United States lags far behind most of the 190 countries whose labor laws we examined.”

And Heymann has done the math. According to the McGill professor, if the average birthrate is two kids per family and parents were provided with a paid FMLA (12 weeks per child), that would amount to only 24 weeks over the course of an entire career – less than 1 percent of lifetime earnings and occurring typically in the lower-earning years of relative youth.

Yet, the fight continues and until a major shift in policy occurs, parents – and working mothers in particular – need to know that there is hope; there are companies that offer paid parental leave and these organizations are growing in number.

Respect for Employees

Accenture is one of these companies. Routinely featured on Working Mother’s list of the 100 best companies, Accenture gives its employees the time they need in order to help them better balance their personal priorities and responsibilities with work. This is according to Richard Westphal, Accenture’s North American talent strategist.

Accenture instituted paid paternity leave in 2004 and also provides flexible working arrangements both during and after maternity leave, with the type and amount left up to the employee and their supervisor. In addition, the company has its Future Leave program, which is a three-month long unpaid sabbatical that can be used to extend maternity leave, though it can be used for any type of break and is frequently used by both men and women to care for their family. As support for working moms in North America, Accenture also has a breast pump/maternity coaching program as well as personalized transitional services that provide women with the support they need as they phase back to work.

“Offering support to our working families and flexibility across our company makes good business sense,” Westphal said. “This helps us to retain our experienced and talented workforce and is extremely important to people who are considering joining Accenture. Supporting our people as they build their careers and integrate their work and personal life is important to leaders across our company, including our chief human resources officer and CEO.”

Westphal sums up the company’s policy as a measure of respect for its employees. “Respect is one of Accenture’s six core values. More specifically, we respect and work to understand what our people need to be successful. Our benefits and programs are tangible evidence of respect and Accenture’s commitment to our people.”

Baby on Board

Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software, also brings up a good point: the U.S. never figured out how to handle working mothers. Parsons often writes about subjects that affect working mothers on her personal blog and for Forbes and though she contends that she’s more privileged than most (she’s CEO of her family’s business, which gives her more flexibility), she’s found herself in quite a few situations that illustrate this fact, including a showdown with her own father.

Parsons could have taken a sizeable amount of time off when she had each of her three sons, but she chose not to. Not only does her company comply with FMLA, but it also works with employees to get additional time off using paid disability insurance and advanced time off.

“When I had my first son I really felt like taking a lot of time off would put me behind because there wasn’t anyone who could pick up the slack,” Parsons said. “I was working on things that not only did I need to finish, but that I wanted to finish myself. I think that’s the challenge that many women are up against that doesn’t get discussed very often: if you take this time off, who will pick up the slack?”

Parsons’ solution was to bring her baby to the office each day, where he fit cozily against her chest in a sling. The mother of three tried to discuss bringing her son to the office with her father, the owner of Palo Alto Software, before the baby was born, but it was an idea he immediately shut down, calling it unprofessional. Parsons decided to bring the baby to work anyhow and because she had her own office, many didn’t immediately notice. Despite her father being the owner, she knew getting fired wasn’t out of the question, but then Parsons had a groundbreaking thought: what could anyone really do about it, if her performance continued to be stellar?

“I realized that if I continued doing my job as well as I’d always done it, if I continued to meet all our objectives and goals, what could anyone really do about it? I was successfully doing my job and because having my baby in the office didn’t change my performance, there were no grounds to let me go. After that, I never apologized for bringing my baby into the office.”

Courage Under Fire

Parsons believes that women need more confidence in the workplace; that if they continue to work hard and bring results, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t try bringing their babies to the office.

“Women are afraid to ask for these things,” Parsons said. “We’re too stuck on male definitions of success and masculine perceptions of what’s acceptable and professional in the workplace. Too many of us assume that bringing our babies into the office won’t be ok. And sometimes it won’t be, but more often than not you’d be surprised to find how accepting people can be, especially when you’ve proven yourself to be an asset to the company.”

Research has shown that many women have an easier time negotiating on behalf of a team or when they come to understand that getting a raise is not just beneficial to them, but to their kids, their family, and to other women. Perhaps this is the mindset that’s needed for women to explore unique ways to navigate around the U.S.’ lack of paid parental leave.

Ideally we would live in a country where we did not have to fear losing our jobs because we have a child we need to care for. But until that happens we need to be the change that we want to see and in Parsons’ case, her brazen move resulted in a more family-friendly place for her female co-workers. Palo Alto Software now not only lets women bring in their newborns for four months, but the company also gives new moms a private office during this time.

“There will be situations where you will be judged, especially in corporate environments, but with so many women in the workforce if just a small percentage of us were willing to act on our needs, it could quickly create change,” Parsons said. “Women have different needs than men and until laws are passed that make things easier for us to be mothers and professionals, we have to have the courage to do what’s best for us and our families and that doesn’t mean not doing our job, it just means doing our job in a different way.”