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Second Shift

Why This Charter School Network Changed Its Paternity Leave Policy

After the CEO of a charter school network became a mom, she realized how her parental leave policy was undermining workplace equity.

[Photo: Flickr user Lesley]

Katie Duffy has long been interested in issues of equity. Professionally, she’s the CEO of Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of charter schools currently serving 5,000 disadvantaged students. But as a new mom who took two maternity leaves in two years, she discovered a new front in these struggles. Her husband’s job gave him less time off to be with his kids. Since she was the parent at home, she developed an expertise that was hard for him to match. "Even though we both have very stressful, demanding jobs, when we’re both home, the majority of the parenting falls to me, just by nature of the time spent," she says. "I had that time off."

Duffy realized that this assumption that mom knows best has repercussions for couples and society. When mom shoulders most of the parenting, she may be more likely to scale back at work. This contributes to the dearth of women in leadership positions.

So Duffy and Democracy Prep decided "to send a message," she says. "Equity—as part of an organization aimed at educational equity—is something that’s very important to us."

Under their old parental leave policy, moms who’d been there less than two years got four paid weeks. They got six paid weeks after two to five years of service, and nine weeks after five years. Dads got one, two, or three weeks at those tenures. As of July 1, all parental leave will become more generous, but it will also be equal for moms and dads. New hires get six paid weeks, rising to eight weeks at one year, and 12 weeks at two years.

A Low-Cost Benefit

The rationale for offering paid leave in general is straightforward. The financial cost is relatively low, Duffy says. Most people don’t have that many babies, and a school already needs policies in place to cover absences for sick leave, jury duty, vacations, etc. (Democracy Prep pays existing employees extra to cover for their colleagues’ classes, rather than hiring substitute teachers.) "I make the joke that it’s our budget for pizza," Duffy says about the per-school cost of extending leave. "That’s probably a little misleading, but it’s not a huge number to expense."

The upside for recruiting and retention, on the other hand, is large. "Generally, charter schools are not understood to be places where you can have a family, because the hours are so long," she says. Many charters build their business models on hiring young people straight out of college, and then seeing them leave to go to law school after a few years. Duffy would prefer to avoid that turnover, and the average age of her teachers is around 30. "This is going to set us apart as a place that cares about having people here for a long time," she says.

The Case For Attracting Men

A reasonable number of organizations find their way to that argument for maternity leave, but very few organizations, including those that are far better capitalized than schools, offer 12 weeks of paid paternity leave. The rationale for that policy, explains Duffy, comes down to two things. First, brand consistency. People who go to work for charter schools want to change the world. Striking a blow for gender equity is one way to do that. Second, like most schools, the Democracy Prep schools are staffed predominantly by women. Duffy says, "We are committed to seeing our teaching staff be more representative of all the different folks we educate." A robust paternity leave policy is one way to attract more of the kinds of men who would make wonderful educators.

To be sure, just because a policy exists doesn’t mean people will take advantage of it. Plenty of companies offer some amount of paid paternity leave, but the understanding is that parental leave is for women, and if you take it as a man, you will hurt your career. "It’s one thing to have a policy. It’s quite another to take advantage of it," says Duffy. But she reports that a few senior men at Democracy Prep have partners who are due after July 1. "They will need to set an example," she says. But if they do, the message will be profound for new recruits: "We want to give them a way to think they have found a work home here and can build a life," she says.

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