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I’m a gay CEO, and this is why parental leave will promote gender equality

The founder of Credly reflects on becoming a father and upending the archaic maternity-leave playbook, which has perpetuated bias against women in the workplace and permitted men to operate under lower expectations.

I’m a gay CEO, and this is why parental leave will promote gender equality
[Photo: Arifur Rahman/Unsplash]
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My newest startup is Benjamin. No, it’s not a new consumer product or AI company with a familiar first name. Benjamin is my son. And only five months in, he is the most amazing product I’ve ever helped launch. He is also the one I least imagined being possible. I came of age when gay marriage was illegal and gay parenting frowned upon in most of the world.

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We still have a long way to go on these issues.

After an early work experience ended with me being fired because I was gay, I decided to start my own business built on the values I care about. In 2012, I founded Credly, a tech company that helps organizations make human capital decisions based on skills and abilities, instead of bias and faulty assumptions.

When my husband, Andy, and I decided to become parents, there were lots of eyeballs on us but no societal playbook to follow. Questions such as “With two dads, which one of you will stay home after the baby is born?” (which for some translated to “Which one of you is the mom?”) made us realize that whatever plans we made for parental leave would help educate and become a model for others. We saw a chance to help move past a conversation dominated by the archaic maternity-leave playbook, which has perpetuated bias against women in the workplace and permitted men to operate under lower expectations.

Parental leave for all should be an expectation, not just a benefit

Companies such as Credly that offer paid paternity leave are still rare. While the number of big businesses offering paid paternity leave is growing, just 9% of U.S. worksites offer it to all their employees. It is even more unusual that Andy and I each took a full month of parental leave.

Although new fathers eligible for paid paternity leave are increasingly using the benefit, 76% return to work in less than a week and 96% in under two weeks. Most take less time than their benefit allows. Studies tell us why, though I’m pretty sure most women already know the answer: “to minimize the risk of stigmas and other penalties” in the workplace.

Even as the CEO, I had concerns about whether my decision to take parental leave would adversely impact anyone’s perception of me or their confidence in my ability to keep leading. From my admittedly privileged position, the experience made me see how hard it is for millions of women to navigate this decision. They wonder if interviewers or managers are gaming out the likelihood they will get pregnant and take a leave.

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Companies should foster cultures where paid parental leave is an expectation for every new parent, regardless of gender. With more equal numbers of women and men taking leave, over time this will reduce fear and bias, as everyone will benefit and feel the impact more evenly.

Gay executives should lead by example, and their companies should have their backs

Gay dads—especially those in positions of management—need to lead the way and advocate for paid paternity leave. Obviously, this is easier said than done. When I started my career, there were very few gay business leaders who were out. While that’s been changing in some industries, there are still a lot of gay people experiencing unfairness in the workplace. Half of LGBTQ adults live in states where they can be fired for their sexual orientation. For gay people of color, the impact of employment discrimination is even worse. On a global basis, gay fathers receive less paid parental leave than different-sex and lesbian couples.

However, when a gay executive publicly avails himself of parental leave, it demonstrates what a positive workplace culture looks like. As the leader of a company that serves a diverse global audience of employers and job seekers, and where more than 10% of our own employees identify as LGBTQ, my actions set an important tone.

And whether they admit it or not, straight men are influenced by what gay men are doing too. When men feel safer taking parental leave, it reduces the relative stigma women experience at work and leads to greater gender parity in career opportunity.

Encouraging new parents to spend time with their children is good for business

When I “came out” as a dad-to-be to one of my fellow executives, his reaction caught me off guard: “That’s great! You are going to be so much better at your job.” In his experience seeing others become parents—and my personal experience has now affirmed this—people with young children get really good really fast at prioritizing and getting stuff done. There’s a bath to give, a bedtime story to read, a tired partner ready to pass the baby baton. Meetings get more to the point, responsibilities and expectations get clearer. In short, people hold themselves and others more accountable for outcomes over inputs.

And if you fancy your company to be built to last and mission-driven, there’s nothing like getting a member of your team to spend several weeks with their newborn to help them truly start to think about long-term growth and new possibilities.

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Forty-one percent of employees are parents. Imagine how encouraging more workers to take parental leave can have positive ripple effects for the entire organization. When people are permitted to be their true selves, they develop greater loyalty to and sense of engagement with their employer. And engagement leads to reduced absenteeism, increased productivity, and as much as 59% less turnover. The impact of having the right culture in your workplace is felt by customers, too. Customers are happier, and there are increases in sales, according to Gallup.

Someday Benjamin will be old enough to judge my performance as a dad. In the meantime, I’m happy to be judged by how well my company lives up to the values of a new world of work that cares about fairness and equal access to opportunity—including the opportunity to spend some quality time with a new child.


Jonathan Finkelstein is the founder and CEO of Credly.