When Google increased paid maternity leave, the rate at which new mothers quit dropped 50%

Still in it.
Still in it.
Image: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
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The tech industry often points to a pipeline problem when talking about its gender gap. There simply aren’t enough women studying computer science, some argue, and as a result, many companies suffer from a gender imbalance, especially in technical departments.

But companies interested in narrowing the gap might also want to do a better job of keeping women who already are in the pipeline from leaving it. According to a 2008 Harvard Business Review report, 52% of women in science, engineering, and technology jobs ultimately depart from their respective fields.

Yet as Google demonstrates, a little bit of generosity can go a long way toward retaining female talent—while also ultimately improving a company’s bottom line. According to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, who has five kids of her own, by increasing paid maternity leave in 2007 to 18 weeks from 12 weeks, parent company Google (now Alphabet) halved the rate at which new mothers quit.

“It may sound counterintuitive, but the research—and Google’s own experience—shows a generous paid maternity leave actually increases retention,” she wrote in a Jan. 27 blog post for the Huffington Post. “When women are given a short leave, or they’re pressured to be on call, some decide it’s just not worth it to return.”

The US is the only OECD country that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave. Just 12% of American workers have paid leave to care for a baby or sick parents.

But the tech industry is beginning to gain recognition for bucking the trend. Last year, Virgin Group and Netflix extended paid leave to a year for new parents. In November, Amazon expanded its benefits to 20 weeks of paid leave for birth mothers, with the option to share six weeks of paid leave with a partner. Gaming company Unity said earlier this month that new parents will be offered 12 weeks of paid leave, with the ability to work part-time for eight weeks while earning full-time pay.

These changes do more than to make new mothers feel welcomed in the workplace. Because turnover is costly for businesses—by one estimate it costs 20% or more of an employee’s salary to replace him or her—companies, too, benefit from keeping female employees and their expertise.

Ultimately, quitting a job to focus on motherhood—or to take up a less-demanding career—might come down to the mother’s own choice. But companies might be wise to make sure the decision isn’t so easy.