Op-ed: To Achieve #balanceforbetter in the Workplace, Reinvent Family Leave Policies

Dale MeikleBy Dale Meikle, PwC

Icelandic primary school children born in the 1970s and ‘80s expressed disbelief when told that a man could be President.

Their mental map didn’t include little boys aspiring to the presidency — because all they’d ever known was a female president. It’s a favorite anecdote of mine because it flips common gender stereotypes while cementing their power.

Gender equality leads to better outcomes for everyone, a theme International Women’s Day elevates this year with their #balanceforbetter theme. At PwC, we approach IWD as another opportunity to challenge stereotypes. The most limiting stereotype at work is that women are predestined to be caregivers. Outdated family leave policies lie at the root of gender inequality in the workplace and beyond. Until they’re refreshed to give individuals and families more choices, women will continue to make up a minority of leaders.

PwC’s US CEO, Tim Ryan, recently said, “Together a new employer-employee relationship can expand what the old one did for decades, create shared prosperity and hopefully build better and more meaningful work and lives for millions.” Expanded family leave and a simple but intentional change in nomenclature will anchor this transformed relationship, paving the way for true gender equality in the workplace.

PwC found that the expectation of work-life balance is exactly the same between male and female millennials; research shows that men and women experience similar levels of work-life conflict and that fathers experience more work-life conflict than mothers. I can say anecdotally that the men I know take their caring responsibilities just as seriously as the women; and that my colleagues and friends without kids don’t value their family, friends, or time any less than those with kids. PwC’s cutting-edge research on engagement drives home the point that the most successful leaders of tomorrow must discover how to deliver great performance by helping people individually thrive.

Beyond the essential birth and recovery period that women must continue to take, women and men should have equal access to time off and flexibility in coming back to work after the birth or adoption of a child. Furthermore, all employees should be offered a minimum amount of leave to care for the people they love. Employees are unique in their needs and the most successful companies will offer benefit choices that work for everyone. Companies and governments should be racing towards inclusive family leave policies, not plodding towards them – and some are beginning to show significant progress.

Culture Matters but Policy Helps

Territories leading in family leave policies are — not coincidentally — also top of the World Economic Forum’s Gender Equality Index. Iceland, a perennial leader on the Index, grants three months of non-transferable parental leave to both mothers and fathers and an additional three months of leave to couples to share as they choose. Its success lies in the uptake: about 90% of Icelandic fathers take the leave.

Netflix offers 52 weeks of paid family leave to women and men (and, with 41% female employees is one of tech’s leaders in gender equality across its staff population); Google and Facebook offer equal family leave to women and men. Last year, PwC US introduced six weeks of fully paid parental leave for all employees, with about 72% of new fathers using the full amount. Employees also have the option to implement a phased return to work after parental leave, allowing new parents to work 60% of their contracted hours at full pay for four weeks following a paid parental leave of absence. Other types of caregivers can receive four weeks of paid leave in order to care for certain family members with serious health conditions. PwC UK offers eligible parents of either gender 22 weeks of full pay and is encouraging more dads to feel like they can take it. Breaking through assumptions about men’s role in families and changing attitudes will be key to capitalizing fully on the good policies that already exist.

To be sure, gender equality is a complex issue with children socialized from a young age to play into narrow roles – and this calcifies the stereotypes that play out later in life. Even in countries with longstanding progressive parental leave – like Sweden – deeply embedded gender stereotypes from sources, namely, the media, hinder gender equality progress.

Globally, women continue to bear the bulk of unpaid care work. Leave to care for children and other loved ones matters now as it has never before because the workforce has transformed, while policies and even norms have stagnated. Many leave policies are woefully out of date, constructed to serve a majority of mothers who didn’t work outside the home and a majority of fathers who were happy to leave domestic duties to their wives. Around the world, family leave policies vary dramatically, with some countries lacking any mandated paid parental leave (United States), and others offering up to three years (Germany, Eastern Europe). In the UAE, new fathers get two days of paid leave, while in South Africa and India they get five. Research shows that new mothers are penalized financially at work, while new fathers are rewarded and these outdated or unfit leave systems perpetuate that trend. It’s not the fact of a woman having a child that hurts her career, but the assumptions that she is less competent and less willing to take on high-profile assignments.

When these policies were crafted, zero percent of corporate workers had caring responsibilities. Today, according to a recent HBR study, seventy-five percent of all workers have care responsibilities, regardless of gender, and regardless of whether they are single or coupled. Families have also evolved: same-sex, single parents, and blended families are exponentially increasing. It’s important to note that leave policies shouldn’t be limited to caring for children, but can and often do also encompass caring for partners/spouses, parents, grandparents, nieces/nephews, or other close family members. Many corporations don’t directly address leave for anyone other than children.

The imperative is there

According to a 2016 study, only 36% of companies have a global parental leave policy covering multiple types of leave, 94% include maternity leave, 76% include paternity leave, and 73% included leave when adopting children. Our leave policies are no longer fit for purpose.

We must provide more support and choices for our diverse workforce and use the term family leave to describe anything other than a woman’s short-term medical leave, when recovering from childbirth. Family leave is not only a gender-neutral term, but covers a wider swathe of employees and accounts for the changing family and household dynamics of today’s world.

About the author

Dale Meikle is the Global People Experience Leader at PwC International

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