When I had my first baby, I was so grateful I could cobble together a full 12 weeks of paid leave based on my tenure and my company’s maternity leave policy. Paired with my husband’s two weeks of paid paternity leave, we were able to take the time to navigate new parenthood together with our baby girl.
Since then, I’ve had more than one person ask me about the maternity leave options I was offered, as their own companies didn’t have policies in place. I hadn’t realized the privilege I’d experienced working for a company with a written maternity leave policy when I had my first baby, especially one that went beyond legal requirements – like including five days of back-up daycare.
So what is legally required? All U.S. companies with 50 or more employees are required to offer short-term disability and FMLA benefits to their employees. If you employ fewer than 50 employees, there is no federal law requiring you to provide maternity leave and additional family leave laws vary by state. In the U.S., only 14 percent of workers currently have access to employer-funded paid family leave.
However, paid family leave policy may finally be moving at the federal level with political candidates from both sides of the aisle willing to discuss parental leave policy solutions. Americans are overwhelmingly on board, with 82 percent saying mothers should receive paid parental leave and 69 percent say fathers should, based on a 2016 Pew Research Study.
While the government works to correct the fact that the United States in the only developed nation that doesn’t require paid parental leave, you can have a more immediate impact your own workplace if it lacks a formal policy or its policy needs serious improvement. To help, we drew on insights from female corporate leaders and experts advocating for working mothers. We also spoke in-depth with two women, Courtney and Katy, who are in the process of crafting policies at their own companies.
Courtney just had her third baby while employed at the same company, a global pharmaceutical business. Upon getting pregnant a third time, she was shocked to find her company still lacked a formal family leave policy within her seven years of motherhood. She decided to spearhead the change and help set her company apart for new talent acquisitions. With the economy in a better spot than when she had her first baby, the timing seemed right.
We also talked to Katy, a director at a small business (less than 10 employees), working with C-suite talent. Thinking about her own plans for a family in the future, Katy set out to write a maternity leave policy after learning her own company lacked any written policy and, under FMLA, weren’t legally required to have one.
Where to begin?
Research, research, research.
Both Courtney and Katy began with Google, then reached out to people – both mothers and fathers – at companies of all sizes to understand the family leave landscape. You can dig into the depths of the company handbook to find out what currently exists for family leave at your company, including part-time or remote work options.
Additionally, Courtney recommended exploring what competitors are doing to ensure that the policy she drafted matched what the competition was offering at minimum and would strengthen her case. Bringing her proposal to leaders with grown children, Katy had to ensure she was giving them an accurate picture of how workplace culture was shifting and what future employees would be expecting.
Kristen Hadeed, CEO of Student Maid and author of Permission to Screw Up started by asking her employees about what they envisioned for parental leave at a leadership team workshop. As a company that employs mostly college students, Student Maid hadn’t had to address parental leave policy yet, but wanted to be proactive and take employee feedback into account.
Gather your advocates
Hadeed is a unique CEO known for her people-centered leadership, however, policy change (and ultimately, understanding and acceptance) requires advocacy from other individuals at all levels within an organization. Startup culture expert Corey McAveeney asserted, “Parental leave benefits are going to have to be driven not by policy but by individuals and a culture of individual companies” in the book The Fifth Trimester by Laura Smith Brody.
Brody also added, “No pressure, but we’re all depending on you.” Right, no pressure.
At a larger company, Courtney was able to conduct internal focus groups to find out what matters most to parents/parents-to-be. At a smaller company, finding comparable organizations with policies will help build understanding and remind old-school leadership about the daily challenges facing new parents.
Workplace culture expert Rosie Ward, PhD, is careful to distinguish policy as a workplace climate change versus a true workplace culture change. Maternity leave policy on its own will not be enough to spur real change for families if the culture doesn’t support their daily realities. Finding internal allies can help push the approval of family leave policy and will also help your company live the values the policy represents in their day-to-day work.
Current culture shifts can strengthen your case
Courtney also worried that drafting a policy while pregnant might come across as too self-serving, so she made sure to look beyond just maternity leave to include family leave including adoptive parents and caring for sick and aging parents. After all, family leave is an everyone issue, not just a women’s issue.
“You as an individual can put your request in the context of cultural change – not just me wanting something,” said Lindsey Pollak, Millennial workplace expert in The Fifth Trimester. “This is the way the workplace is changing and these policies are going to be important moving forward.” It helps put you in the position of being a positive change for the company, especially as Millennials take over the American workforce and have different expectations for work-life integration.
By recognizing people as full human beings, not just cogs in a machine, workplaces experience increased employee retention and improved recruiting. As a recent Time Magazine article stated, “Though it does cost money for businesses to voluntarily provide paid parental leave, it’s now becoming clear that it also costs money not to provide it.” Even worse, a policy can become a PR issue for a company. Nike is facing backlash after their advertising promoted gender equality while, at the same time, their contracts and policies seemed to penalize female athletes for motherhood.
Expect challenges, but look for compromises
“The greatest challenge I found advocating for myself and anyone after me at my company was societal norms,” said Katy. “Plus the wide spectrum of coverage, with some companies that legally don’t have to provide paid maternity leave – or in some cases don’t even guarantee an employee their job – to some companies providing 6+ months and everything in between.”
The greatest challenge I found advocating for myself, and anyone after me, was societal norms.
Companies at the forefront of parental leave policies in the United States like Netflix, Amazon, and Google might be good bullet points to demonstrate the culture shift, but sometimes such a sweeping change is not feasible. “I knew something like six months of leave just wasn’t possible at our small organization,” said Katy. “But looking for other solutions like a ramp up back to work period and work-from-home days could be a win for everyone.”
Courtney recommends publicizing the policy to drive awareness and be willing to retroactively offer it to parents who had a baby within the prior 12 months. Not only will employees likely be more satisfied, but they will also be more likely to stay with the company and share the policy with others through word-of-mouth and pushing them up the list of great companies to work for.
Bringing multiple solutions to leadership shows you’ve done your homework and can also build a bridge of understanding and empathy on both sides. Again, Brody aptly summed it up, “(It shows you) recognize the pressures of bosshood.”
Today’s workplace was designed for our grandfathers — don’t lose hope
Thank you, Melinda Gates, for calling this out. While the American workforce has changed dramatically, American workplaces have not — but a movement is happening and you’re not alone in the process. Remember “your new working motherhood is full of benefits to your workplace – that’s recognized everywhere else in the world.” said Christin Drake, MD, in The Fifth Trimester.
The big-picture goal is not only to make the workplace better for parents today, but to transform workplaces for those who come after us tomorrow, including those little faces we so look forward to coming home to. You know, the ones who made us parents in the first place.
No pressure, of course.