The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a lawsuit on behalf of an employee at the beauty products manufacturer Estée Lauder Companies, accusing the company of discriminating against male employees by awarding different amounts of paid parental leave to mothers and fathers, the Wall Street Journal reports. According to the Journal, the EEOC is acting on behalf of a stock worker in Maryland, who sought to take advantage of the child-bonding leave benefit Estée Lauder offers to new mothers and was given just two weeks of leave as opposed to the six weeks mothers receive (on top of the time they are allowed to take off to recover from childbirth). New mothers also allegedly are offered flexible return-to-work benefits that are not available to fathers.
In its lawsuit, the EEOC is arguing that this policy violates the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and demanding back pay, damages, and injunctive relief for the stock worker and other male employees affected by the policy. US employers are not required by law to offer paid parental leave, but for those that do, the commission’s official position is that these benefits should be equally available to parents of both genders, except for medical leave benefits related to pregnancy and childbirth, which of course can be reserved for women.
In another discrimination complaint filed with the EEOC in June, JPMorgan Chase employee Derek Rotondo claimed that the bank’s parental leave policy discriminated against him and other working fathers by “relying on a sex-based stereotype that mothers are the primary caretakers of children.” JPMorgan Chase offers different benefits to “primary” and “secondary” caregivers—and according to Rotondo’s allegations, automatically designates mothers as primary caregivers but requires fathers to meet a set of eligibility criteria. The EEOC has not yet taken legal action on Rotondo’s behalf, but this case again reflects the growing pressure on companies not to discriminate between mothers and fathers in their parental leave policies.
Critics of this primary/secondary distinction argue that it reinforces the stereotype that one parent (usually the mother) should play a more active role than the other in child care, and so does nothing to help address this imbalance or the “motherhood penalty” many women pay in their lifetime earnings and career progression for taking time away from work to raise children. Among advocates of gender equality in the workplace, extending paid leave to new fathers is seen as an important step forward for women as well, as it encourages men to take a more active role in child care and discourages managers from penalizing women employees for balancing work and parenting obligations.
A similar series of discrimination cases has been seen in the UK’s employment tribunals, two of which have found in favor of working fathers who said their employers discriminated against them by paying them during their paternity leave at the statutory rate prescribed in the UK Shared Parental Leave law, while mothers in the workforce had their pay topped up. In both countries, the government and the legal system are beginning to question whether it is fair to presume that mothers will play the role of primary caregiver.