Is ‘Maternity Leave’ an Outdated Term?

Is ‘Maternity Leave’ an Outdated Term?

The professional services giant Ernst & Young rolled out a new parental leave policy this week that gives 16 weeks of fully paid leave to all US employees who become parents, including “men and women welcoming a child through birth, adoption, surrogacy, foster care or legal guardianship.” EY made a point of noting in its announcement that the policy, effective July 1, made it “a first mover in equalizing parental leave benefits for men and women among the Big Four, Accenture, IBM and other professional services firms.” Fact-checking that claim, Fortune’s Kristen Bellstrom finds that indeed, most of these other organizations offer more leave to birth mothers or “primary caregivers”—only PricewaterhouseCoopers offers equal leave to all new parents, and their policy is much less generous than EY’s.

Gender-neutral policies that don’t distinguish between mothers and fathers or “primary” and “secondary” caregivers (which usually means mothers and fathers) are a growing trend in parental leave; though very few employers offer them, Etsy, Bank of America, and Twitter have made headlines recently by adopting universal policies. State policies mandating family leave, such as the one New York adopted this month, are also gender-neutral, and there’s even an effort in Congress to make the Pentagon offer the same amount of leave to mothers and fathers in the US armed forces.

In light of this overall trend, Emily Peck at the Huffington Post wonders whether the whole concept of “maternity leave” is going out of style—she certainly hopes so:

[G]iving women or so-called “primary caretakers” more leave is still the norm among the few employers that provide parental leave. This probably isn’t doing women any long-term good at work or at home. Indeed, it might help give men an edge as more desirable employees — who won’t take much time away from work. It also puts more of a burden on women at home, where it’s assumed they’ll take on more caregiving.

“The idea of giving women more parental leave than men is based on a sex stereotype that women should be home and men at work,” Peter Romer-Friedman, deputy director of litigation at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, told The Huffington Post recently.

It is unlawful to give women more leave to take care of their children, he said, citing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The only disparity in leave that can be justified, Romer-Friedman said, is the amount of time it takes a woman to recover from childbirth — generally six weeks.