The ground that big business has long rested on is experiencing an earthquake. And the shakeup could have huge repercussions for moms, dads, and the fight for gender equality.
In recent months, a slew of corporations have made sweeping changes to support parents. Johnson & Johnson dramatically increased paid leave for moms and dads. Virgin will allow some employees up to a year off. Goldman Sachs doubled paternity leave. This week, Netflix announced unlimited leave for workers during the first year of a child’s life, and Microsoft announced it’s expanding its offerings as well.
Corporate giants are suddenly trying to outdo each other in providing what the U.S. has long lacked.
As I explain in my new book All In, laws, policies and stigmas have left the workplace in a time warp, preventing the gender equality most Americans profess to believe in. Women are pushed to stay home for caregiving throughout children’s early years, far beyond the time for physical recovery from birth and even breastfeeding. Men are pushed to stay at work, rewarded for sitting at their desks for more hours rather than actual accomplishments. The book includes stories of men who were punished, demoted and even fired for daring to take time off for caregiving, because they broke from the old, macho ideal at work.
Offering paid leave to moms and dads helps break this sexist cycle. It allows families to choose who will stay home and when. And this boosts businesses’ bottom lines by helping them attract and retain high-quality ployees regardless of gender.
When I launched a fight for fair parental leave at my company, one legal publication called it a “shot across the bow” for employers. I can’t know how much that battle helped, as the article said, put “employers on notice.” But clearly, the ground is shifting. Big businesses are starting to recognize that these policies are necessary to compete for talent.
Still, it’s critical to keep two things in mind: First, this parental leave boom belies the overall trend. Only 14% of companies offer any paid paternity leave at all, and the amount being offered has been going down in recent years. Numerous CEOs still oppose even the idea of paternity leave. A Harvard study found that most business leaders still believe work-family conflicts are a “women’s problem,” despite the reality that dads are suffering from these conflicts as much, as if not more than, women.
And second, very generous policies, in which employers pay salaries during leave, are not the answer for most businesses. Instead, we need to take what’s currently working in three U.S. states and make it national. In California and New Jersey, small payroll taxes create a pool of funds, which workers can draw on for family leave. This applies not just to new parents, but to those caring for elderly parents or ill spouses, or recovering from illness themselves. It’s been proven good for business, with employers and employees alike reporting positive results. Rhode Island now has a program as well.
But nationally, a state-by-state solution is unlikely to take root for numerous reasons. For starters, most states don’t have mechanisms for collecting and distributing family leave funds. Washington state passed paid family leave years ago but still doesn’t have it because there’s no such mechanism.
The FAMILY Act would help solve this. It would take small, limited payroll contributions from workers and businesses nationwide to create a pool of funds that would pay workers during leave. It would be a giant step forward. On Capitol Hill, I’ve met with Democrats and Republicans to discuss the issue. Democrats have been supportive. Republicans have not presented any arguments against it, but haven’t embraced it either. The folks at Change.org and I have launched a petition calling on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to support paid family leave. And I’m working with the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation to make it a central issue in the nation’s first primary.
For All In, I interviewed some conservatives including Jim Daly, head of Focus on the Family, who say that they originally opposed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows many U.S. workers unpaid leave. They now regret the opposition. I believe that, just as FMLA passed after a tough struggle, paid family leave will as well. This will be especially good for small businesses, helping them compete for talent against big companies that offer their own paid leave programs.
In the meantime, it’s incumbent on these big companies to take another, equally important step: encourage men to actually take the leave. Now, most workers who get paternity leave don’t take all that’s offered. “It felt like a PR benefit, not a real benefit” — just there to make the company look good, not for guys to actually use, one dad explained.
Fathers today are unlike the stereotypes. The vast majority of us are committed to our families and excellent at parenting. We work just as hard as women do on behalf of our families when you combine paid work, childcare, and household responsibilities. The pressures to put work first are real, and corporate leaders can change the culture. But it’s also incumbent on us to stand up to the stigmas by taking leave and fighting back if we’re punished for it.
But the most important action we all need — moms, dads, businesses — must come from Washington. The U.S. is the only developed nation that does not guarantee paid time off for moms after a birth. Many nations guarantee this for dads as well.
Congress: Please take a cue from the companies jumping on this bandwagon. Build a stronger economy and stronger nation. Stand for the family values you profess to believe in. It’s time to be all in for paid family leave.
Josh Levs is an investigative journalist, expert on modern fatherhood and author of the new book All in: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses – And How We Can Fix It Together. He has three children.