I was about 10 years old the first time my babysitter — and older woman who was more of a grandmother to me than a babysitter — said she’d been taking care of me since I was 2 months old. Even at that age, it didn’t make sense to me that a mother would leave her newborn so soon to go back to work, but sure enough that was the case for my mom nearly 31 years ago and still is for many mothers in the United States, the only highly developed country — and one of only three countries in the world — that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave.
While many companies are changing that reality — Nestlé with its 14-week paid mate paternity leave, Spotify with six months of paid parental leave and Netflix with it’s unlimited time off option — what may not have caught up to these new policies is the company culture surrounding paid leave. Yesterday Etsy announced it will offer employees “26 weeks of fully paid leave when they become a parent through birth or adoption, regardless of their gender, country of residence or family circumstance.” But in doing so, the company also acknowledged their decision to offer more than six months of leave to both mothers and fathers isn’t just about their own workers, but about changing the nation’s attitude toward parental time off.
“We designed our new parental leave policy to be flexible, gender-blind and to counteract unconscious bias. We want to support and enable parents, regardless of their gender, to play equal roles in building successful companies and nurturing their families,” Juliet Gorman, Director of Culture and Engagement at Etsy wrote on the company’s blog. “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.”
But will having this policy be enough to encourage mothers and fathers to take advantage of it? Four years ago Forbes released a report showing an increasing number of high-powered female executives were skipping maternity leave — many of them working right up until their delivery date — to prove they could hang with the big boys. That subconscious pressure, in turn, makes men feel even less comfortable taking advantage of paternity perks. A 2013 issue of the journal Social Issues, found when men took temporary family leave or more flexible scheduling such as working from home or part-time they received lower hourly raises and poorer job evaluations. In another study by the same researchers, they found men who requested family leave were more likely to be fired or demoted because their need for more time was perceived as weakness — meaning the decision for who takes how much time off and when can be just as weighty for mothers as it is and fathers.
I just came back from vacation today and was paranoid when I logged on this morning and saw a Gchat I missed from my CEO when I was out of the office Monday; that, coupled with the need for bereavement time this coming Friday and Monday for a funeral, I immediately felt like I must overextend myself today and tomorrow to make up for these personal circumstances. Even when I’m “off” I routinely check my email to make sure nothing has fallen through the cracks, and it’s a rarity that I don’t sign on and publish at least a few things when I’m out of the office to make sure people remember I still have a purpose. Knowing myself, as enticing as six months of leave sounds, I truly wonder if I could detach from work enough to truly enjoy that time with my child and believe my job was truly secure during that absence. As much as I joke about wanting/needing a sabbatical, the fear of that time away turning into a position in the unemployment line keeps my mind centered on work, even during short vacations, and I wonder if even I could shift my mindset enough to place family before career if I was afforded such a healthy time-off perk as a new mother.
What do you think? How much time would you be comfortable taking off work if you were given the option of four-six months or even unlimited parental leave?