Parental Leave Is Changing. Are You Keeping Up?

Over the past decade or so, many cultural (and even bipartisan political) efforts have gone toward making parental leave a normal part of employers’ vocabulary.

That gradual and ongoing evolution comes as parents, advocacy groups and even the U.S. Department of Labor have sought wider acceptance of paid, extended paternity leave benefits for new parents — something a growing number, but still a minority, of employers offer.

Though the Family and Medical Leave Act requires eligible employers to offer 12 weeks of leave on an unpaid but job-protected basis for both men and women, not all workers qualify for that federal protection. Finding an employer that offers paid leave is even harder to come by — especially for men.

The Current State of Paternity Leave

According to a 2018 report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 35% of employers offered paid maternity leave last year, while only 29% of them offered paid paternity leave.

On one end of the spectrum, you have stand-out employers like Netflix and Facebook, which offer up to a year and four months, respectively, of paid leave for moms and dads alike. On the other end, you have the rest of the country, where most dads take a week or less off after the birth of a new child. That’s compared to maternity leave, which lasts about 10 weeks on average in the United States.

Part of the problem is stigma, not the actual benefits for new parents. In a study reported by the Harvard Business Review (HBR), 1 in 5 dads were scared they’d get fired if they took their all of their available paternal leave. That fear feeds into low usage rates: According to SHRM’s 2018 Global Parental Leave report, some 23% of new dads are skipping their offered paternity benefits.

Stigma, Stereotypes and Long-Term Impacts for All

The stigmas baked into taking — or not taking — parental leave point to bigger-picture implications in career trajectories for both men and women. And, to HBR’s point, they hold everyone back: men, women and children alike.

When men return to the workplace earlier than women, it promotes the gender gap and reinforces stereotypes that dads are the breadwinners and moms the caregivers. As a result, fathers may surrender bonding time with their child, moms may surrender career prospects and all the while, children may miss out on the developmental benefits linked with parental bonding.

All of this has long-term business impacts, too. A majority of fathers would change jobs to get supportive parental benefits —
even more than women would. That behavior leads to better retention and reduced turnover costs when employers actually deliver on those benefits, as the more generous creators of paternity packages like Netflix and Google have found. And without a level playing field, the net result of unequal leave policies negatively impacts a workforce’s gender diversity across the board.

3 Ways to Improve Your Paternity Benefits

As the statistics show, half the battle is creating an extended paternity leave package that gives new dads the time they need to be with their growing families. The other half is making them feel supported and encouraged to take that time without fear of repercussions. Here’s how to make it happen.

  1. Move to “parental” benefits.
    A growing number of companies, Netflix and Facebook included, have thrown out gender-based terms like maternity and paternity in favor of a general parental leave. This removes labels so that employees feel supported without stigma or stereotypes.
  2. Encourage senior leadership adoption. Employees at all levels need to see senior leaders of both genders taking their available leave, so encourage those in higher-compensated positions to take what’s offered.
  3. Designate a leave coach.
    Select a representative in the company who can work with the employee to help them understand their benefits and navigate them through every milestone — from their first day off to their first day back and all the days in between.

Regardless of what you offer or for how long, it’s critical to do it in a way that helps level the playing field, not only for men and women but for high-wage and low-wage workers, too. When all employees have equal access to time with their growing family, everyone wins — even those who won’t enter the workforce until 2040.

Stay up to date on the latest health care regulations and trends for your small business: Subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

COVID-19 Resources: Managing Your Business During a Crisis