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Leveling the Parental-Leave Playing Field

Encourage both fathers and mothers to take available paid leave

A man and woman feeding a baby with a bottle.

When employers offer paid time off to new parents, the percentage of women using maternity leave following the birth or adoption of a child is likely to be at or near 100 percent, while only a fraction of men take all the paternity leave available to them. In fact, researchers at Ball State University found that less than 5 percent of men take two or more weeks of parental leave.

The lack of paternal leave-taking not only affects the well-being of new parents and their children but also has broader implications for the workplace. "When mostly women take parental leave, it perpetuates the idea that women should 'naturally' be the primary caregiver," said Liz Kofman, co-founder of Peoplism, a diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm in San Francisco. "This stereotype negatively impacts women's earnings, as researchers have long shown that the wage gap noticeably widens when women have children but not when men do."

When men take parental leave, Kofman noted, women are more likely to return to work and to earn more when they do return.

"Research has found that simply becoming a mother changes assumptions others have regarding women's commitment to work and even their competence," Kofman said. "When men take leave, it normalizes parental leave in the eyes of managers, leadership and colleagues."

Parental leave, especially paid leave, is a highly valued employee benefit only if employees use it. "The only way to get men to take parental leave is to make it OK for men to take parental leave," said Maureen Crawford Hentz, vice president of human resources at A.W. Chesterton Co., a manufacturing firm with 1,100 employees based in Groveland, Mass. The company offers six weeks of paid parental leave that can be used all at once or throughout the first 12 months following the birth or adoption of a child.

Putting It to Use

Maximizing the value of parental leave is a key issue for Chesterton, Crawford Hentz said. "Our engineers are heavily [recruited] by headhunters who are trying to pry them out of our company," she explained. Talking with those employees, Crawford Hentz and her team realized that parental leave would be an important retention tool among engineers who have or want to start a family. In addition, the company has gotten positive feedback from job candidates, some saying that they joined the company in part because of its generous parental-leave policy.

However, it became clear to the company that just offering parental leave is not enough if the leave goes unused. The company CEO took a lead role in sending the message that using paid parental leave was not only welcome but also expected, Crawford Hentz said. Lower-level managers also emphasized the availability of leave and how employees could use it.

"We were able to help managers and co-workers understand that supporting each other meant arranging for leave coverage and supporting the person who took the leave," Crawford Hentz said. "Once we helped people over those real concerns, we realized that this benefit offered to our employees is not only doable, but very appreciated."

Chesterton employees are required to provide 30 days' notice of their intent to take parental leave so that managers and HR have time to ensure adequate coverage.

Crawford Hentz said that she noticed the real shift when managers began asking how employees would use their parental leave rather than just assuming that people would take off just a few days following the birth of a child. In 2020, male employees took nearly 70 percent of the parental leave available to them and about 43 percent in 2021, when many were working from home during the pandemic.

Encouraging Leave

Employers can encourage parental leave-taking in several ways.

Ensure that leave is gender-neutral

Beyond medical leave for birth mothers, "make sure that your company offers equal parental leave to men and women, does not use outdated language like 'primary caregiver,' and encourages all new parents to take their full leave," said Kofman.

For bonding with a new child, technology firm Mitratech offers six weeks of paid parental leave within six months following the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child. The full six weeks need not be taken at once, according to Rene Barreda, chief people officer for Mitratech, based in Austin, Texas.

Have the organization's leaders express support

The message that taking parental leave is important must come from the top and be reinforced throughout the organization. "The leadership team needs to actively communicate support for leave policies, and let employees know that it's OK to take the time," said Tiffany Pham, CEO and chairman of the board at Mogul, an HR technology firm in New York City with more than 60 employees. Leaders can affirm that "it's a great idea to take the time, so employees can bring their best selves to work when they return," she said.

Get Managers Onboard

Employers must train managers to encourage all expectant parents to take their full leave and have conversations about future career growth plans before going on leave. "Managers should never assume that new parents will want fewer responsibilities or less challenging assignments," Kofman said.

In addition, she encouraged employers to evaluate managers on their direct reports' engagement, including feelings of being supported, valued and able to succeed. "I can guarantee you that when an employee who is expecting a child is pressured not to take leave or take less leave than they want to take, they are not going to feel supported, valued or able to succeed in the long term at your organization," Kofman said.

Ensure Flexibility

Employers can reduce employees' concerns over taking parental leave by making sure there is adequate coverage throughout their leave. "We encourage people to discuss parental leave with their manager well in advance with information on approximately when it will occur," said Amy Mosher, chief people officer with technology firm isolved, headquartered in Charlotte, N.C.

This allows time for the company to set up a temporary coverage or succession. The company offers six weeks of paid parental leave, and half of eligible male employees have taken all six weeks, and half have taken three weeks.

This advance planning helps to ensure that employees will be able to focus fully on their family throughout their leave. "It's critical that employees on parental leave not work" so they can really be present at home, Mosher said.

Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.


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