The online handicraft retailer Etsy has introduced a new parental leave policy that offers both mothers and fathers 26 weeks of paid leave, 18 of which they can take at any time during their first two years as a parent. As Etsy’s communications director Juliet Gorman explains on the organization’s blog, the other eight weeks must be taken continuously in the first six months, so that parents can bond with their new children and mothers who have just given birth can have time to recover. Gorman also stresses that the policy was designed to be “flexible, gender-blind and to counteract unconscious bias”:
We believe that what’s good for families is good for business. … Research shows that both mothers and fathers face biases and unique pressures at work. Compared to women without children, mothers are half as likely to be recommended for a promotion and offered an average of $11,000 less in salary. Fathers who take leave also experience lower performance ratings and steeper reductions in future earnings. This is wrong-headed. As a business, Etsy needs people who are clear on our priorities, motivated, and focused on achieving our long-term goals and we know that being a parent is not mutually exclusive to being this type of employee. In fact, we believe that policies that retain talented parents strengthen our overall employee base.
Most organizations’ parental leave policies are not gender-neutral. For example, the recently expanded policies at Hilton and the Pentagon provide some paternity leave for new fathers, but are primarily aimed at new mothers. In some sense, this is understandable. After all, childbirth is physically demanding and women who have recently experienced it are under a unique type of stress. That’s why generous maternity leave policies are an important tool for retaining female employees: New mothers who don’t get the support they need and deserve from their employers are apt to just give up and quit. But policies that focus heavily on women and childbirth can give short shrift to dads, who need time to bond with their babies too, as well as women who become mothers through adoption or surrogacy.
Also, offering maternity leave but not paternity leave reinforces the notion that women should play a bigger role in parenting than men. Men who take advantage of parental benefits are still stigmatized for it, and combating that stigma is important if we want fathers to be more involved in their children’s early lives. In a companion post at Medium, Gorman goes into detail about why Etsy opted for a gender-neutral policy. One reason is that paternity leave has major benefits for women as well as men:
Having a spouse who did not take any leave after childbirth is associated with higher levels of maternal depressive symptoms; at least one in eight and as many as one in five women develop these symptoms in the year after giving birth. Research has shown that when fathers have access to parental leave benefits, women achieve greater leadership roles. In a global survey of 21,980 companies from 91 countries, more paternity leave was strongly correlated with the percentage of women on boards. In contrast, countries with mandated maternity leave benefits were not linked with a greater share of women at the top.
The Huffington Post’s Emily Peck is over the moon at Etsy’s new policy, praising it as “basically perfect.” Etsy’s old policy, she points out, had offered more leave to “primary” caregivers, which most of the time meant mothers. Getting rid of this “falsely neutral designation,” she argues, was a huge step forward:
“In many places the idea of a man taking time off at all is stigmatized. For a man to say he’s a primary caregiver, it’s downright impossible,” said Josh Levs, author of All In, a book that looks at how fathers are treated in the workplace. Primary and secondary parent designations are basically just “coded language” that reinforces traditional gender stereotypes, Levs said.
Using a policy based on these designations is harmful is a couple of ways. First, it puts women at a disadvantage at work, as colleagues and supervisors tend to either consciously or unconsciously expect them to stop prioritizing their jobs after the arrival of a child. This typically means that new mothers aren’t promoted as much, or aren’t asked to take on extra responsibilities like traveling. Indeed, one study found that women’s salaries decrease with every new baby they have.