A recent survey from Indeed, reported last week at Recode, finds that despite the sector’s relatively generous parental leave policies, many women in the US tech industry are afraid to take full advantage of those benefits out of concern for their jobs or future careers, or due to overt pressure from their managers and coworkers:
Survey participants gave different reasons for why they felt pressured to return early:
- 34 percent said they were directly pressured by colleagues or managers.
- 32 percent feared losing their jobs.
- 38 percent cited a fear of losing credibility or value. …
“Frankly, women are afraid they’ll lose their jobs. We’re worried we’ll be forgotten while we’re gone. Out of sight, out of mind,” said Kim Williams, director of experience design at Indeed, in an email to Recode. “Things move so fast in tech, projects move forward and you wonder: Once the team gets used to working without you, will they decide they no longer need you?”
Previous surveys of women in tech have turned up similar findings, as well as that women are widely subjected to questions about their family lives in job interviews and that women are held back from promotions based on misguided expectations by their employers that they will eventually leave the workforce to start a family. These are by no means exclusive to the US tech sector: A recent survey of UK employers, for example, found that a majority believed that a woman should have to disclose whether she is pregnant to a prospective employer, while many said they believed mothers to be less interested in career advancement than their peers.
The major home improvement and appliance retail chain Lowe’s announced in a press release last Thursday that it was introducing a paid parental leave benefit for full-time employees, both salaried and hourly, as well as expanding eligibility for its health insurance plan:
In addition to the company’s comprehensive benefits program, eligible full-time hourly and salaried U.S. employees will qualify to receive:
- Ten weeks of paid maternity leave and two weeks of paid parental leave.
- An adoption assistance benefit to cover up to $5,000 of expenses related to agency, legal and other fees.
- Eligibility to enroll in health benefits sooner, as early as the first of the month following 30 days of service.
Lowe’s also announced one-time cash bonuses of up to $1,000 for its more than 260,000 hourly employees, as some other large US employers have done in response to the substantial cut in the corporate tax rate passed by Congress in December.
The chain’s new leave policy, which goes into effect May 1, means that the 20 largest private employers in the US now offer some form of paid parental leave benefit, the New York Times‘ Claire Cain Miller observes:
Although women make up a small fraction of its membership, the ironworkers union has secured for them one of the most generous leave policies for pregnant women in the US, BuzzFeed’s Cora Lewis reported on Monday. The International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers, which represents about 130,000 construction tradespeople in the US and Canada, announced that members of the union who become pregnant will be entitled to six months of paid maternity leave to be taken prior to delivery, on top of six to eight weeks of postpartum leave:
“The challenges of physical work associated with the ironworking trade create unique health challenges that can jeopardize a pregnancy,” the union said in a statement announcing the benefit, noting that paid maternity leave “is virtually unheard of in the building trades.” The numbers put maternity leave for iron working women on par with corporate employees at tech companies like Etsy, Adobe, Spotify and Cisco. Netflix and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are among the only companies that offer workers more paid parental leave, according to data gathered by Care@Work, which specializes in family benefits.
While women account for just 2,100 members of the union, changes in technology, workforce demographics, and attitudes toward gender roles mean that women’s share of the workforce in some traditionally-male fields is growing. As employers in other sectors have discovered, construction firms may find this new maternity benefit less costly than replacing female employees who drop out of the workforce to raise children; research has shown that women are significantly more likely to quit if their employer does not offer family-friendly policies like parental leave and flexibility. Bill Brown, CEO of Ben Hur Construction and co-chair of the Iron Workers labor-management working group, told BuzzFeed that he considered the benefit an investment in retaining women employees:
Toward the end of 2015, the Indian government introduced legislation to increase the statutory amount of paid maternity leave employers must offer new mothers from 12 to 26 weeks for all organizations with more than 10 employees; winding its way slowly through the legislature, the bill was approved by the upper house of parliament in August and cleared its final legislative hurdle when the lower house passed it last Thursday, which as the Times of India notes will give India the world’s third largest paid leave mandate for new mothers, after Canada’s 50 weeks and Norway’s 44.
Mothers are eligible for the full 26 weeks’ leave only after adding the first two children to their family, however; women having a third child are entitled to only 12 weeks, as are those who become mothers through adoption or surrogacy. The bill also directs employers to offer work-from-home options to mothers on their staff if the nature of the work permits it, and mandates that enterprises with 50 or more employees provide access to creches or daycare facilities for working mothers.
The law does not address paternity leave, but the Times points out that the subject came up in the parliamentary debate over the bill, with some MPs arguing that it would put women at a disadvantage in the job market to make paid leave mandatory for mothers and not fathers, effectively discouraging employers from hiring women for fear of having to give them extra benefits:
Although a recent study found that maternity leave was no more common in the US in 2015 than in 1994, over the past few years, a number of major US employers have introduced expansive new parental leave policies in an effort to ensure that their employees, and particularly the women among them, are able to continue and thrive in their careers at the same organization after having children. At the same time, the US, which currently does not require employers to offer paid parental leave by law, may be moving toward enacting some kind of national paid parental leave mandate, though it may only benefit mothers and possibly only those who give birth. Meanwhile, states and localities like New York and Washington, DC are experimenting with mandates of their own, but overall, private companies appear to be moving faster than the government when it comes to mainstreaming parental leave.
From an employee’s perspective, any paid parental leave is better than none, and more is better than less. Bloomberg’s Laura Colby points out that experts believe the ideal length off for new mothers is somewhere between 6-12 months, but they also warn that there can come a point of diminishing returns at which taking more time off work to be with their children hurts mothers professionally more than it benefits their family life:
[R]esearch suggests that an overly long break isn’t ideal. Parental leave policies that extend to a year or two often set women back professionally, says Ariane Hegewisch, program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington: “It seems to slow down both women’s career advancement and labor force participation.”
Michae Allen / Shutterstock.com
The expansion of parental leave policies has been one of the key benefits trends in the US lately, with an increasing number of employers realizing that this benefit can be a crucial factor in retaining mid-career talent, especially women. The latest major company to get on this bandwagon is Starbucks, which rolled out a new policy last week giving birth mothers who are store employees six weeks of 100 percent paid leave plus up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, among other changes. Ikea and American Express also recently revamped their parental leave policies, joining many other large employers who have done so over the past two years.
In that light, the results of new research into the prevalence of maternity leave in the US may come as a surprise. Time’s Amanda MacMillan highlights a study from the Ohio State University finding that an average of 273,000 women take maternity leave each month, and that this number did not change much between 1994 and 2015:
However, the number of men taking paternity leave more than tripled during the same period, increasing from 5,800 a month to 22,000 a month. The study used data from a monthly U.S. Census survey, and is published today in the American Journal of Public Health.
Study author Jay Zagorsky, a research scientist at Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research, expected to see a rise in maternity leave rates in recent years, especially given all the political attention the topic has received recently. He says he began looking into maternity-leave rates after two of his nieces gave birth around the same time last year. “One got an amazing package—full pay for a few months—and the other had to cobble together vacation and sick time,” he says. “I was flabbergasted.” …
The US remains the world’s only advanced economy without a law mandating some amount of paid leave for new mothers or for both parents, and the question of whether to enact a national parental leave mandate became an issue in this year’s presidential campaign. With both political parties making an issue of parental leave, some kind of public policy action on this issue was looking increasingly likely to happen in the coming years, regardless of last Tuesday’s election outcome.
On the campaign trail, president-elect Donald Trump signaled support for a federal law guaranteeing six weeks of maternity leave to mothers who have given birth, but not adoptive parents or fathers. It is unclear whether this proposed rule would apply to single mothers or same-sex couples. The new benefit, as the Washington Post’s Danielle Paquette describes it, would pay new mothers around $300 a week through the federal unemployment insurance program, and Trump has said he would pay for it by eliminating fraud from that program:
The country’s Federal-State Unemployment Insurance currently funnels benefits to workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Under Trump’s proposal, new mothers whose employers do not supply paid family leave would fall into that category. Working family advocates worry the distinction would single them out as more costly and therefore less hireable, while leaving out men who are their family’s primary caretakers.
“This looks like a policy from someone who sees child-rearing as solely the responsibility of women and doesn’t understand American families,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of the national advocacy group Family Values at Work.
Critics of the proposal question whether combating unemployment fraud could generate enough savings to pay for Trump’s maternity leave proposal, and fear that it will give employers an incentive to discard their own leave plans. It’s also not clear whether a new benefit like this could get through a Republican Congress.
Parental leave advocate Josh Levs doubts Trump’s plan would work. At Time, he argues that the states will likely make more progress on this issue than the federal government will in the coming years: