A few years ago, one of my friends was getting ready to welcome his first child into the world. His company, one of the largest technology companies in the world, offered generous (for the US) parental leave: sixteen weeks off with full pay.
When he told his manager that he would be taking off two weeks after the birth, his response was telling: “Why?”
This reaction illustrates the core problem with parental leave: maternity leave is usually fully utilized, while paternity leave is underutilized, if it’s offered at all.
In most societies, childcare is assumed to be a woman’s task, which manifests in expectations around parental leave. If managers can informally pressure their subordinates to not take the time to which they’re entitled, they will often put more pressure on men, and benefits will be unequal. Women will take off more time, leaving them farther behind in their careers than men, maintaining the current gender imbalance in promotions and pay. Even after the UK created a new law that gave men and women have an option to share the parenting load, women still end up taking more leave.
There are many reasons companies should want their employees to take time off when they have kids. Most important is the moral one. Spending time with family, particularly during the first year of a child’s life, is important. Sharing childcare responsibilities equitably is important. Admittedly not everyone feels this way, but companies have a moral imperative to act and take stances today, and those that don’t risk alienating their workforces and customers.
There is also a strong economic argument for supporting equal leave. Firms that implement these policies have lower absenteeism and higher performance. They also have an easier time recruiting younger employees. Given that companies are often forced to pay recruiters more than 20% of a new hire’s first year salary, even a small uptick in retention and ease of hiring is worth paying months of parental leave.
At Humanyze, where I’m the CEO, I decided to remove barriers to equal leave. In particular, parental leave is the same for men and women (12 weeks with full pay), and all paternity leave is mandatory. Fathers don’t have to take off all of the time in one chunk, but they do have to take off the full leave within one year. While we could mandate this for women as well, we’ve found that women tend to take off the full leave that they’re offered.
Early in Humanyze’s history, when we had seven employees, we got a crash course in the difficulty of supporting parental leave at a startup. On March 3, our chief scientist and cofounder had her second daughter. On March 4, I had my second son. Essentially 28.5% of our workforce went on leave at the same time. Our coworkers experienced joy and dread concurrently.
We were all concerned about how to keep the company afloat when two cofounders and leaders in the company would be out at the same time. Luckily we both had parental experience so we knew what was coming, but it required a lot of support from our coworkers and a huge amount of flexibility to make it work. But the company thrived, the world didn’t collapse, and we were able to spend time with our new children. It was an easy call to make that leave should be mandatory for the rest of the company.
The response to this program since then has been overwhelmingly positive. Our SVP of growth, Jeremy Doyle, is in the midst of taking paternity leave. In his words, taking the time has “offered great flexibility and invaluable bonding time for my family.”
To be sure, it takes preparation when employees take an extended amount of leave. You need to identify surrogates to take over certain tasks and identify avenues for emergency contact. To the extent that we know the rough date someone is taking leave, we start to structure tasks and hand off responsibilities so we minimize coordination risks.
It’s my experience that many companies make these accomodations for women but not for men. Since we don’t distinguish between parents, each team needs to plan for each expectant parent without pressure to be back at work.
It’s my hope that one day we won’t have to mandate this, but that it’ll be expected of men to share childcare duties with women. This will unlock performance advantages for companies and ensure gender equality at work. Mandating paternity leave is a relatively simple step towards that future. I hope other companies follow suit.
Ben Waber is the president and CEO of Humanyze.