The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is backtracking on year-long parental leaves

One size does not fit all.
One size does not fit all.
Image: Reuters/Regis Duvignau
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation looked pretty heroic when it introduced 52 weeks of paid parental leave as an employee benefit four years ago.

In the US, companies are not obligated to offer employees any paid leave. When they do, it’s typically limited to three or six months, even at famously perk-rich companies like Facebook and Google. By American standards, therefore, the one-year benefit was momentous. Advocates for longer leaves wanted to believe the foundation’s policy would signal the start of a trend.

Alas, it didn’t survive. In a recent LinkedIn post, Steven Rice, chief human resources officer at the Gates Foundation, reported that the organization found one-year leaves too disruptive for its teams. It’s now capping parental leaves at six months and giving parents a taxable $20,000 stipend to defray the costs of childcare.

“We saw and heard many good things, like wonderful stories of quality family time with a new child and career development opportunities for those who took on a challenging backfill opportunity,” Rice wrote in his post. “But we also learned the program had created some unintended consequences.”

Even temporarily filling positions left empty by parental leave “had a ripple effect across the organization, in some cases extending two or three layers deep,” he explained. While some replacements were hired from the outside, a “large percentage” were found internally, which meant those replacements would need to be replaced, and so on.

On one team, he noted, half the staff was either on leave or working as a backfill, “making the regular work of the foundation far more difficult than expected.”

The labor associated with looking for new candidates, training them, and retraining returning parents turned out to be too much of a burden for many managers, his post suggested. So the foundation—a symbol of forward thinking— decided to backtrack on the policy.

How do they manage in Canada?

While many managers would no doubt sympathize with the foundation’s plight, it’s worth remembering that parents in several wealthy countries are entitled to a year, or more, of shared parental leave. Long leaves are standard practice, not experimental or visionary, in Australia, the UK, and Japan—and in the nation just a few hours’ drive north of the Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle.

In Canada, companies have had no option but to make 52-week parental leaves work, when requested, since 2000. The question Canadian companies ask isn’t “Can we do it?” but “How do we do it?” says Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family, a nonprofit research group in Ottawa.

Canadian law guarantees three months of subsidized maternity leave, and 12 months of gender-neutral shareable parental leave, as a public benefit. The government pays up to 55% of one’s income, up to a maximum $562 per week. More recently, the Canadian government made it possible to stretch those same benefits across 18 months of leave. Quebec laws are even more progressive, given that the province pays a higher portion of a parent’s salary and additionally offers a five-week use-it-or-lose-it leave benefit for fathers or other non-birth parents.

Across the country, many employers top up the government benefits, making it possible for couples to receive a full year of paid leave, a practice that’s becoming increasingly common in every type of industry, with even traditionally male-dominated sectors like mining and resource companies showing more interest in the idea, says Spinks. That said, employer benefits still vary considerably in terms of the number of weeks they’ll top up pay, and by how much.

The need for a supportive culture

Spinks doesn’t want to suggest that it’s simple to institute a one-year leave. Beyond questions of financing and filling up vacancies, firms need to address cultural issues to ensure a supportive environment for new and expecting parents. It’s not uncommon for an employee’s leave to trigger a backlash from colleagues who feel they’re expected to pick up the slack, or who don’t intend to have children and would like to apply for a paid sabbatical too, Spinks says.

But the challenges are not insurmountable, especially not when a manager is trained to communicate properly with staff, and the larger community and economy acknowledges a family’s, and a society’s, needs.

Many companies—large and small—adapted long ago. For instance, Samantha Legge, president and publisher at Canada Wide Media in Vancouver, British Columbia, tells us one-year leaves are a non-issue at her 60-person company. “I mean, of course it’s disruptive to a degree because you have to prepare when an employee is going to take a one-year leave,” she said, but most employees provide six months’ notice, which she has found to be “ample time” to find and train a new hire.

Dealing with one-year leaves is “just part of managing,” like any other part of the job, she says. And she says she cannot remember a time it’s been detrimental to the company in the 25 years she has worked there.

“We have always been able to accommodate women taking a full maternity leave and it has not been an undue hardship from my perspective at all,” she says, adding,“I personally wouldn’t have it any other way.”

There is no “ideal” time for every family

The Gates Foundation’s leaders are more familiar than most with the many benefits of supporting women, infants, and parents during the earliest part of a child’s life. “The first year of a child’s life is so important not only for the family unit, but also for society. All the data supports this,” Rice wrote in a Quartz at Work story, published last year, about why the foundation adopted one-year leaves, and everything it learned from doing so. He noted then that the foundation has made maternal and child health one of the principal tenets of its mission to reduce inequality around the world.

The foundation still wants to support women and children with as much generosity as possible, Rice writes on LinkedIn. But he is also now arguing that six months may be the ideal time for employer and employee to optimize the benefits of the time off. Research supports this idea, he writes, hyperlinking to an infographic from New America’s Better Life Lab.

The lab’s 2017 review of studies on the effects of long and short parental leave did find that six months is ideal for maternal health and wellbeing. But it also concludes that paid leave should be a year long, shared between parents. What’s more, it reports that “[w]hile there’s some debate, research finds that the optimal duration of paid leave for women’s return to work without severe penalty is nine months to one year.”

In its coverage of the Gates Foundation’s rollback, the New York Times (paywall) collected some evidence to suggest that six months is “the magic number for families to achieve the benefits but to avoid the pitfalls of parental leave.” But the Times report also implies that duration is ideal simply because it’s popular. Specifically, it’s the number chosen by California governor Gavin Newsom, many tech companies, and a handful of think tanks.

Spinks questions this mentality. “The ideal time for you may not be the ideal time for me,” she says. “If I’m still nursing, and the baby’s not sleeping through the night, and I’m a sole supporting parent, or my child is on the autism spectrum, [six months] might not be right.”

The health of the child, the health of the parent, the parent’s socioeconomic status, and the availability of affordable healthcare are all interconnected factors that determine what’s best for a family, says Spinks. Employers’ needs and the needs of an industry also differ, and influence the calculations. “It might be that I work in a profession like IT, which changes so rapidly that if I’m gone for more than six months, I’m going to be so far behind,” she says. Likewise, investment bankers may fear losing clients if they’re away for a full year, whereas teachers might find a full year to be less disruptive.

Managers, meanwhile, often report that managing a one-year leave is less of a hassle than managing a six-month leave, Spinks adds. Half a year comes and goes quickly, she says, relative to the time spent looking for a temporary hire and getting that person up to speed.

Not being deeply familiar with the Gates Foundation and its rollback, she did not want to comment on its decision. But she does caution against one-size-fits-all and black-and-white thinking. “Whenever we try to look at maternity and parental benefits with one lens, you’re going to miss all the other perspectives,” she says. “There’s a whole lot more gray in this, but gray is beautiful, if we embrace it and understand it and recognize it.”