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How introducing paternity leave can change women’s career opportunities

These companies believe that encouraging men to take parental leave can even out the playing field, and help get rid of the stigma that often hurts women.

How introducing paternity leave can change women’s career opportunities
[Photo: Picsea/Unsplash]

In 2015, a number of major companies jumped on the bandwagon to provide generous parental leave. Given that the United States–unlike the rest of the developed world–doesn’t have a federally mandated paid leave policy, this perk was seen by many as a way that companies compete for talent. And it’s not just for birth mothers. These generous policies include fathers, as well as adoptive parents.

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Some companies believe that the benefits go beyond attracting talent. EY and American Express, for example, are of the view that instituting generous paternity leave policies can help increase the leadership pipeline for women in the company, and contribute to employee loyalty and retention in the long term. After all, women tend to be penalized for taking the time off to have children. When they come back, they might find themselves relegated to the “mommy track“–with very few paths to advancement and leadership roles, or punished for requesting flexible arrangements. This has caused many women to drop out of the workforce altogether.

But both companies acknowledge that to fix this issue, they have to go beyond introducing generous leave policies. They needed to make it culturally acceptable for both mothers and fathers to take that leave, and eliminate the stigma that often comes with new parents who choose to be absent from the office when their child is born. Both recently spoke to Fast Company and shared what they’re currently doing to get themselves closer to that goal.

The business case for paternity leave

Currently, EY offers 16 weeks of fully paid leave for its U.S. employees for both biological and adoptive parents. American Express offers 20 weeks for both mothers and fathers, with an additional six weeks for mothers who have given birth and require medical leave.

Both tell Fast Company that the introduction of that policy required them to present a “strong business case” to the top leaders of the company. “It was not as complicated as I would have thought,” says Karyn Twaronite, partner and EY’s global diversity & inclusiveness officer. EY surveyed 10,000 workers and found that millennials (who make up most of their workforce) were twice as likely to be in dual-income households. They also found that a significant percentage would leave the U.S. to go to another country with better parental leave policies. “Offering paid parental leave around the world had a more significant robust pipeline for women,” says Twaronite. “This would serve a number of problems, but it would serve as a business pipeline builder.”

American Express introduced their 20-week policy out of a survey that they conducted to determine what was important to their workforce. Out of all the initiatives they suggested, “This is the one that took off,” says David Kasiarz, executive vice president, global total rewards and medical at American Express. For Kasiarz, the main argument for introducing such a policy was that it would bring “greater loyalty to the company.” Like EY, American Express also found that for many of their younger workers, childcare is no longer the domain of just one parent. It wasn’t just women who were having conversations about children, says Kasiarz, “It’s men and women asking, What do you do when you think about having children? How do you ensure they’re healthy?” Kasiarz tells Fast Company.

On eliminating the stigma

Kasiarz and Twaronite both tell Fast Company that they knew it would take more than introducing the policy to make employees feel empowered to take advantage of it, and assuage any worries that doing so will negatively impact their careers. “People come to work with their own history, their own preconceived notions,” admits Twaronite. One of the skepticisms that she heard when EY introduced the policy was that fathers were less likely to take leave, let alone the full 16 weeks. She didn’t find this to be the case. Instead, she is seeing the number of fathers taking advantage of the leave grow every year. “Dads want it, dads are taking it.”

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But Twaronite knew that even relying on those numbers weren’t enough. She needed to get the leaders to endorse the policy and also take the leave themselves. “We have a daily news alert, which we share around the world or locally, where . . . we talk about a story,” Twaronite says. That might include stories of a dad that had twins, took his full leave, and was still promoted to partner. She tells Fast Company that one of the turning points was when EY’s global chairman and CEO, Mark Weinberger, told an audience of EY employees in China that he would have to skip a banquet dinner because he wanted to fly home for his daughter’s driving test. “It’s funny, no one remembered his 90-minute speech,” says Twaronite, but many remembered the fact that he cut his trip short to be home for his daughter. 

Twaronite believes it’s these kinds of moments that can shift an employee’s perception about what taking leave means for their careers. “If dads, like moms, take leave, it becomes a no-brainer. It doesn’t become a stigma, that they don’t care about their work, it just becomes . . . a stage in someone’s life.” 

Kasiarz shares the same sentiment, and says American Express had to be aggressive about “sending signals of promoting women when they’re on leave and not slowing down the process.” He acknowledges that they still have a long way to go when it comes to eliminating the stigma for men, but that they’re making progress by actively acknowledging that work-life balance and parenting is just as much of a man’s issue.

The business realities of parental leave

When American Express introduced their 20-week parental leave, Kasiarz also realized that in addition to eliminating the stigma, the company needed to think about making arrangements once the person comes back from leave, and what would happen to the work while they were away. “We needed to make sure that people who were picking up the work were part of the discussion,” says Kasiarz.

He acknowledges that introducing the policy requires upfront investment, and the benefits don’t come immediately. As Lydia Dishman previously reported for Fast Company, introducing parental leave often requires companies to shoulder some financial burden. These include hiring a temp, a potential decrease in productivity, and also the cost of paying the benefits while the employee is out on leave. Yet Kasiarz points out that the cost of not doing it are even greater. “I think it’s a necessity that the company has to do something,” he says. “Because if they don’t . . . they’re not going to get the people that they want.”

Twaronite also admits that in the world of professional services, balancing client expectations and allowing for paid parental leave can be difficult. Technology, she says, has made it possible for clients to reach EY’s employees 24/7, and keep people tethered to their phones. On the other hand, “[This is also] a good thing because you have more flexibility with when and where to meet their needs,” Twaronite says. “We’re able to meet this because of the team dynamics. I think it will be complicated when you have a small consulting shop or financial services shop,” she acknowledges.

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Parental leave and gender equality as a whole

Both American Express and EY believe that there’s a strong business rationale for introducing generous paid leave policy. After all, the financial benefits of having a diverse and heterogeneous workforce is well-documented, and doing that starts with attracting those candidates in the first place.

But can boosting gender equality in the workplace translate to gender equality as a whole? After all, a study set to publish in Gender and Society, as reported by the New York Times, found that while many Americans believe in egalitarian ideals in the workplace, not as many believe in equal roles for men and women when it comes to the domestic realm.

Myra Strober, a professor emerita at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and author of Sharing the Work: What My Family and Career Taught Me About Breaking Through (and Holding the Door Open for Others)tells Fast Company that while she believes introducing parental leave policy can improve equality in the workplace, translating that beyond office walls requires a much bigger cultural transformation–one that requires policy change at the federal level so that companies have a mandate to organize a workforce that’s not hostile to working parents. Without that kind of institutional support in place, it’s difficult to achieve large-scale changes in equality.

But Mary Pharris, director of business development and partnerships at Fairygodboss, is optimistic. While companies might not be federally mandated to provide these generous policies, like Kasiarz, she believes that more companies have no choice but to introduce family-friendly benefits. As more employees expect a family-friendly culture, companies will find that they have no choice but to create that kind of environment to retain the top talent.

Equality at home aside, both Kasiarz and Twaronite acknowledge that they still have a long way to go to achieve full equality at work. At American Express, Kasiarz says that while they’re seeing progress, he expects that the big changes will come steadily and slowly.

Talking about how the policy has impacted the number of women leaders in the company, he says, “I don’t think you’re going to see a significant difference yet. I think over the course of time, you’re going to see increases. I would say we’re pretty comfortable that it is adding women to the pipeline. We’ve promoted women who have been out on leave or are about to go on leave . . . Culture change takes time.” 

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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