Before Kate welcomed a new baby in 2022, she sat down with the HR department at her workplace to discuss expectations around communication with her temporary replacement during maternity leave. Rather than an explicit plan or guidelines, she received vague advice about doing only what she was comfortable with.
As researchers who study gender in the workplace and family economics, we saw interesting questions in this all-too-common experience: How does this lack of guidance actually play out in the workplace? Are there gender differences in what new parents decide is the appropriate amount of work? And perhaps most importantly, what are the effects of this decision for parents returning to the workplace after having a baby?
For new parents wondering how accessible they should be during leave, U.S. labor law doesn’t provide clear cut answers. As seen in this 2009 federal court ruling from the State of New York, maintaining “occasional” contact with work to answer questions and “pass on institutional knowledge” while on leave is a “professional courtesy” that does not violate the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and later rulings (like Tilley v. Kalamazoo County, 2016) supported this—with the caveat that “Perhaps, under certain circumstances, multiple phone calls from an employer and demands to complete more than simple tasks could rise to the level” of becoming inappropriate. This ambiguity (How much contact is too much contact? How much work qualifies as a professional courtesy? What qualifies as a simple task?) leaves new parents looking to friends or workplace norms to help define their role. The problem with relying on informal conversations with co-workers is that these individual opinions and workplace norms reflect a bias that can perpetuate (and increase) gender inequalities at work.
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Our research has shown that men and women significantly differ in how much work they believe they should complete while on parental leave. Men report intending to spend more time than women during parental leave both on responsibilities related to their current job and on strengthening their resume in other ways. These significant gender differences in expectations for leave are not only found in older adults who have already been exposed to the workplace culture—we found the same results when we asked college students to imagine how they would spend their time if given parental leave in their future jobs.
In addition to what this means for the actual experience of parental leave for men and women—with women devoting more time to childcare and men devoting more time to work-related tasks—this gender difference in the use of time influences what men and women’s resumes look like after their time away from work. For example, we found men were significantly more likely to report intentions to take on additional work, look for new employment, learn new skills, and explore new business ideas. If men are spending significantly more time building their credentials and resumes while on parental leave, an expansion of parental leave could lead to increases in gender inequality rather than decreases. While women return from leave with a relative disadvantage in their accumulated workplace experiences and job-relevant skills, research shows that men could return from parental leave with a better resume than when they started.
A separate issue with the ambiguity regarding work during parental leave is the effect of working—or not—on how employees are evaluated and how committed they are seen to be when they return. Companies often don’t have specific guidelines as to the number of calls or contacts allowed per week, or explicit expectations for the number of hours per week to be spent on projects that continue while an employee is on leave. This hazy and unstandardized approach creates ambiguity about expectations, and many studies have shown that when evaluations of employees are based on standards that are not highly structured, bias creeps in. Evaluations in these cases are more likely to be based on stereotypes and gut feelings, and as a result, men and women are judged differently for the same behavior.
To test how this affects parents returning from leave, we conducted an experimental study to examine how working during leave affects perceptions of male and female employees, including performance evaluations, recommendations for promotions or salary increases, and organizational commitment. In our study, we asked 255 working adults to read a performance review of either a male or female worker who had taken parental leave. The jobs and performance reviews of these new parents were identical except for the gender of the described employee and the final paragraph, which explained the new parent had either continued to be available during leave when necessary (like reaching out to contacts before an important meeting and checking email daily) and working on work-related projects (such as completing additional training, earning a certification, and updating their resume), or had not done these things while on leave.
Compared to a male who hadn’t taken parental leave, the male target was consistently penalized for not completing work-related tasks while on parental leave, in the evaluation of his performance, recommendations for organizational rewards, and judgments of his agency and organizational commitment, but not rewarded when he did. For the female worker, we found the opposite result: She was significantly rewarded relative to a female who hadn’t taken leave for completing work-related tasks while on leave, but experienced no penalties in her ratings when she did not complete work-related tasks while on leave. Men were essentially expected to work while on parental leave, whereas women who continued to work were seen as going above and beyond. A woman who didn’t check in with work during her parental leave was rated as positively as if she hadn’t gone on leave at all.
Interestingly, when participants in this same study were asked about their explicit expectations for new mothers’ or fathers’ work completion during parental leave, they didn’t report different expectations for men and women. Most people wouldn’t seriously argue that men should work more than women during leave. They just implicitly expect that they will—and judge them if they don’t.
In fact, a reaction to a similar circumstance with Pete Buttigieg mirrors the findings of this study. When Pete Buttigieg took parental leave after the birth of his twins in 2021, the discussion wasn’t just about whether he should have taken leave, but about how absent he was during that leave. On Oct. 11, 2021, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton tweeted “Pete Buttigieg was completely unqualified to serve as Secretary of Transportation… Now, Pete is absent during a transportation crisis that is hurting working-class Americans.” Pete Buttigieg responded to these critiques with a justification of his continued involvement despite his leave. In a New York Times interview, he reported he continued to “delegate responsibilities during leave or log on remotely for higher-priority work.” Norms around men staying connected during parental leave are strengthened through stories like these.
Ambiguity around what employers can and do expect from their employees on parental leave leads to unfair outcomes for both male and female employees. The advice for a more equitable approach is clear: Reduce this ambiguity and gendered expectations about what employees should accomplish during leave by providing concrete guidelines for employees and supervisors. The minimum or maximum number of emails and phone calls expected per week should be specified. Anticipated participation in ongoing projects should be limited and clear. Contacts outside the company on work-related topics should be documented.
Addressing the other issue—the differential use of parental leave time—is more difficult. In general, research shows men are more likely to use their flexible hours for leisure or professional networking, whereas women are more likely to use it for household and childcare activities. As most fathers in the U.S. take parental leave at the same time as a spouse, caregiving responsibilities during parental leave in heterosexual relationships tend to fall primarily on mothers. Policies that encourage mothers to return to work full-time while the father is on parental leave (like non-transferable father’s quotas, introduced in Norway in 1993, Sweden in 1995, and Iceland in 2001), result in men spending more of their parental leave time independently caring for the child. These policies can therefore help with this imbalance in the use of parental leave time.
Companies may also wish to consider expanding benefits beyond time to services, such subsidizing domestic labor or childcare. In an analysis of cross-country differences in the motherhood wage penalty, availability of childcare for children under the age of three was found to be a strong predictor, across different policy contexts, of women’s per-child wage penalty. These changes could begin to dismantle some of the existing gender differences and norms in the use of parental leave.
Creating policies that truly promote greater gender equality is a difficult task. But making expectations transparent and being mindful of how men and women actually use family-related benefits can go a long way toward making expectations—and policies—more standardized and equitable for new parents.
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