What too many workplaces get wrong about family benefits

Families come in all shapes and sizes.
Families come in all shapes and sizes.
Image: REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
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As a gay man living in Israel, creating a family was a long and arduous journey. To legally marry my partner, we had to travel to Canada, and to legally have children via surrogacy, it required seven separate trips to America totaling 100,000 miles, $300,000, and about three months off from work.

Eight years and one international relocation later, my non-traditional family is living happily in the San Francisco Bay Area. But for us, like many, the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a massive financial and emotional toll.

My husband is a physician and researcher at UCSF, putting in 80 hours a week as an essential worker, and I’m the chief marketing officer of a rapidly growing startup. To accommodate remote learning for our three children, we’ve had no choice but to throw money at the problem. We know we’re among a small, fortunate minority that can afford that luxury, and we know there needs to be a systemic solution to this discrepancy.

Last month, 50 prominent women CEOs and celebrities took out a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for the Biden administration to create a “Marshall Plan for Moms,” where the government would pay mothers $2,400 a month for “their unseen, unpaid labor.” While we all agree that mothers have been left to bear the brunt of the pandemic’s damage, this solution reinforces systemic problems, too.

A Marshall Plan for everyone?

When most people close their eyes and picture a family, there’s usually a mother, a father, a couple of kids, maybe a dog and a white picket fence. The modern reality is much different. Parents come in all shapes and sizes—single, heteorsexual, LGBTQ, grandparents, foster parents, guardians—but many workplace parental benefits are predicated on that outdated picture of the picket-fence family.

When you put in place workplace benefits or legislation that prioritize parenting by one gender, you not only exclude the non-traditional families like mine, but encourage the same stereotypes that have put women in this compromising position in the first place. Whether due to the gender wage gap or society’s firm hold on the traditional family stereotype, women are implicitly expected to be the ones to leave work to care for children. This is a systemic problem that desperately needs a legislative and societal solution.

When legislation is lacking, workplace benefits can serve as critical support for families

While laws in Israel make it challenging for same-sex couples to get married and start a family, the country is relatively progressive when it comes to paternity and maternity leave, mandating 15 weeks off in total for both parents, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Working for the past 20 years in tech, which is arguably the most liberal sector in Israel, I’ve been fortunate to take advantage of company benefits, which often go above and beyond what the law requires. However, when my company, Gong, expanded to the US in 2016, I was dumbfounded by the inadequate benefits provided by the US government.

To make up for the inadequacy, it was time for our company to look inward and re-evaluate the benefits we were providing to support parents. We offer up to eight weeks for parental/bonding leave (and up to six additional weeks for the birth parent). Critically, it’s available to all forms of families. Based on my personal experience, it was important to make parental leave benefits available to anyone wanting to grow their family, whether that’s through foster care, adoption, surrogacy, sperm donation, or egg donation.

Traditional families versus modern realities

Aside from investing in tangible parental benefits, the other way employers can support families is to stop assuming. Don’t assume a mother is going to miss work because she has children to care for, and don’t assume a father can work after-hours because he isn’t the one caring for his children. It could be the opposite. It could be both. It could be neither.

Rather than making assumptions about parental roles, let’s instead focus on creating an inclusive work environment with built-in flexibility for all types of families.