Ahmed Ali Bob, a community affairs lead at San Francisco-based payment processor Square, reached out to his manager about taking paternity leave in March 2020. Ali Bob, 33, and his wife were expecting their first child that summer and wanted as much time as possible to bond with their daughter and adjust to parenthood. When the coronavirus pandemic worsened, it became clear they’d be without the support of their families following the birth, but their employers’ leave policies were a silver lining: Both would be able to take 16 weeks of fully paid parental leave.
In June, his wife’s pregnancy took an unexpected turn—she required an emergency cesarean section. The operation was a success, but the time they’d set aside for bonding was now essential for recovering from the procedure.
“Recovery took weeks, months to get back to normal again,” Ali Bob says. “In the early days, I was the sleep whisperer. Not to brag, but I got it down to a science.”
Square’s paid leave policies allowed Ali Bob and his wife to support their growing family without undue financial pressure, but their experience is something of an outlier. In the U.S., paid parental leave is rare and generous paternity leave even rarer. While the benefits of parental leave for children, parents and employers are well-documented, plans like those offered by Square are uncommon, and when they do exist, are often perks for workers in well-compensated industries such as tech and financial services.
The benefits of parental leave are abundant for parents and children. Having at least 12 weeks of maternity leave has been found to reduce the incidence of postpartum depression, increase emotional development in children and make it easier for working mothers to return to their jobs.
Paternity (or “non-birthing partner”) leave, has also been linked to healthier marriages and can significantly ease physical and emotional postpartum demands. When paternity leave is integrated into a company’s culture, it tends to help women’s career advancement; employers might be supportive of maternity leave but will often consider extended absences a liability for leadership positions. When men are also expected to take time off, the playing field is leveled. A study from McKinsey released earlier this month found that fathers who took parental leave had a positive impact on their families’ finances, strengthened connections with their partners and endowed them with higher morale when they returned to work.
“How things get set up at home early on is really important later on,” says Davidson College sociology professor Gayle Kaufman, who studies modern marriages and paternity leave. “When fathers are involved early on, then they’re involved later on. You start establishing patterns of equality.”
However, these benefits end up being enjoyed by a relative few. The U.S. is the only country in the OECD that doesn’t provide paid maternity leave. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that just 17% of U.S. workers had access to paid family leave. At the federal level, protections around parental leave are over 27 years old, and fairly bare bones: New parents who have been with their employers for a year are provided up to 12 weeks of job protection, but without requirements regarding compensation. Of those who take it, less than half receive full compensation. Some states, including California, Washington and New Jersey, have implemented their own family leave policies to mixed effect. California’s may be the most notable. The Golden State’s paid family leave program provides new parents with 60% to 70% of their working income for up to eight weeks after birth or adoption (the policy also covers care for seriously ill family members).
For most Americans, though, parental leave comes at the discretion of their employers, and few are as generous as companies in tech and financial services. Twitter, Facebook, Alphabet and DocuSign all offer at least 16 weeks’ parental leave, as do Prudential and TD Ameritrade (Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase offer 16 weeks’ paid leave for primary caregivers). In general, a company’s size tends to correlate with the generosity of its leave policies, and doubly so for tech and financial giants that compete to recruit and retain talent.
“These are companies that are largely employing an educated, professional and younger workforce,” says Kaufman. “People at higher income and education levels have higher rates of access to paid parental leave than those who are working hourly jobs. It goes along with any benefit, like healthcare or vacation days.”
If there’s a gold standard for leave, it might be Netflix. Since 2015, Netflix has offered 100% salary compensation for parental leave with a flexible time line (the policy initially excluded workers in its DVD distribution facilities, but was extended to include them later that year). While most employees take between four and eight months, the door is open for those who want to take more. The streaming giant also provides up to $75,000 for employees to pursue adoption, surrogacy and fertility treatments.
Myles Worthington, 33, a director on Netflix’s editorial and publishing team, took three and a half months’ leave after the birth of his third child in 2019. With his first two children, whom he had before joining Netflix, he had been forced to return to work after two weeks of leave. “With two weeks, you can’t really tap out. You’re not connected to your work; you’re distracted by what’s at home,” he says of the experience.
His wife, Ravelle, is the founder of Mommy Brain, an online support network for new mothers. “We compared [the birth] to the previous ones,” Worthington says. “I was just home—I didn’t have to be glued to phone and email. That dedicated presence was helpful for her. For a mother, your child is literally attached to you. You need that physical break.”
Netflix’s policies on family leave are exceedingly generous by American standards, but in a global context, they are middle-of-the-pack, roughly equivalent to what’s mandated by governments in Chile or Portugal. The 16 to 20 weeks provided by other competitive businesses put them in line with the minimum required by Mexico, Cyprus and Turkey.
“I would applaud any companies that offer parental leave, particularly equal [for birthing and non-birthing],” says Kaufman. “But ultimately, I don’t think it’s going to work if it’s just on companies to do this. It needs to be a part of the bigger issue for the government to address.”
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