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Parental leave on the rise in family-friendly companies but inequality at home remains, finds new US study

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Parental leave is highly valued, with the majority of both women and men taking the full amount offered to them, but women are still taking on the majority of the caring load at home, a new study on the US’s top family-friendly companies has found.

Boston College Centre for Work & Family's ‘Expanded Parental Leave: Measuring the Impact of Leave on Work and Family’ studied the experiences of 1,240 employees across four leading ‘family-friendly’ companies that provided between 6 and 16 weeks of gender-neutral paid parental leave.

Data was collected on a broad range of topics, including preparing for parental leave, what encouraged and discouraged employees taking leave, and co-worker and management support perceptions.

Men’s uptake of parental leave on the rise

More men take parental leave in family-friendly companies.

Contrary to other studies that have shown low uptake of men’s parental leave, even when it is offered, this study found that 62% of the new fathers surveyed took the paid parental leave that was available to them. It also found that men who were eligible for the longest amount of leave available - 16 weeks - took an average of 12.8 weeks (80% of what they were offered).

“While the high uptake among women is not surprising,” says Brad Harrington, Executive Director and Research Professor, Boston College Centre for Work & Family. “The amount of leave men took rebuts the conventional wisdom that ‘you can offer men leave but they will not take it’.”

It is interesting to note that the employees in the study were from four companies that are all listed in the top 100 employers by Working Mother, and most are ranked at the top. Working Mother winners are the top US companies that focus on inclusive benefits for families, including gender-neutral leave, gradual phase-back after parental leave, and accessible, affordable childcare. Which begs the question, is it the workplace culture of these companies that impacts the high uptake of men’s parental leave?

Employees are getting more support

Another big positive was that workplace support for women and men taking parental leave seems to be on the rise. A large majority of women considered all groups in their workplace extremely supportive of their decision to take leave. Overall men were less likely to feel extremely supported, especially by senior management (55%) and clients (49%).

Employees were also asked to assess the impact of their employer expanding its leave policy. 81% of men and women agreed that fathers taking leave has become more acceptable in the workplace, and 74% agreed that their employer is equally supportive of mothers and fathers taking leave.

Despite these results showing that employees are feeling more support, respondents believed that leaders could do more to openly encourage leave-taking, including taking full leave themselves.  Many believed that organisation leaders could ‘lead by example” to provide better support.

This echoes the recent results of the National Working Families Report in Australia, where nearly half of all parents surveyed said that a workers’ commitment to their job was questioned if they used family-friendly work arrangements, and 36% wanted more family-friendly champions and leaders in their workplace. The workplace stigma that exists in many companies around family-friendly policies can only change if there are leaders encouraging their uptake and leading by example.

Family-friendly policies increase loyalty

The study also demonstrated the effect that providing parental leave has on how employees feel towards their employers – 75% of respondents agreed that they were more likely to remain with their current employer because their organisation offered expanded leave. Further to this, 30% of employees reported an increase in loyalty to their organisation. No doubt this is in part due to workplace culture that the implementation and encouragement of family-friendly policies create - 60% of women and 53% of men felt that their workplace culture had improved because their employer offers expanded paid parental leave.

Compare this to the recent National Working Families Report that found that one in four parents and carers had considered – or actively intended – leaving their job in the next 12 months due to difficulties combining their job with caring, and it is easy to see why organisations that actively support their working parents through policy and workplace culture are not just employers of choice to new candidates, but retain their current employees for longer.

Improvement on the work front, but what about at home?

“Even as men and women’s workplace experiences are converging. Their experiences on the home front are not. While 76% of men stated they felt caregiving should be shared 50/50, only 43% said that caregiving actually was shared equally. When asked who does more, 49% of women agreed that they did, compared to 2% of men. 49 to 2 seems an extremely striking contrast on who does more. Virtually all of the women in the sample worked full time and had professional jobs similar to the men who responded.”

– Brad Harrington, Executive Director and Research Professor, Boston College

A big part of gender equality starts at home, but needs to be supported by workplace policies.

This only reiterates what we know – that a big part of gender equality starts at home, and the roles of caregiving and household management have a significant impact on how men and women then thrive (or not) in their chosen career path. When workplaces encourage fathers to play an active role in the home, it allows women the equal opportunity to prosper in the workplace. We need to encourage both fathers and mothers to ‘share the care’, and that can start in our organisations.

“I have been studying fatherhood for ten years now as an academic, and over 20 years as a father myself,” says Harrington. “I have also worked with dozens of organizations on issues related to women’s advancement and gender equity. This study only reinforces what I have observed for a long time: we can put in place countless policies and programs supporting women to solve the equality issue, but that is preaching to the choir.”

“Organizations need to encourage and support men who seek to be equal caregivers. That means offering men paternity leave, acknowledging fathers’ need to make significant adjustments in their professional life when children enter the picture, and not making assumptions about parental roles based on gender. And most importantly, fathers need to adjust to the fact that their work is in the office and at home. Hands on. From day one.”

- Brad Harrington, Executive Director and Research Professor, Boston College

What’s needed

The study concluded that ‘Expanded parental leave is a highly valued benefit for both men and women, which yields positive outcomes for organizations in terms of employee loyalty and retention.’ The report encourages employers to implement a parental leave policy that supports their new parents, and in turn makes them an employer of choice, and offers recommendations on how best to do this.

One recommendation is that full parental leave should be made available to all employees, as well as ‘maximum flexibility’. We know that the common labels of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ carer only perpetuate outdated gender stereotypes of a mother’s and father’s role in the family, and so removing these and offering parental leave to both genders equally ensures that both men and women are given the same opportunities to flourish at home and at work.

Importantly, the report also encourages employers to assess the whole parental leave transition period, particularly the return-to-work experience. After any period of leave from the workplace, it can be difficult to return, and this is especially so when a new parent’s home life and personal wellbeing has changed so dramatically. It is important that organisations do what they can to ease their employee’s transition back into the workplace, whether that be by flexible work arrangements, keeping-in-touch days, or the like.

“Encouraging flexible work arrangements and implementing a gradual return-to-work program for new parents can help minimize the ‘shock’ of leaving a newborn.”

- ‘Expanded Parental Leave: Measuring the Impact of Leave on Work and Family’, Boston College, 2019.

These leading US companies show us the positive outcomes of what implementing family-friendly policies can do, not just by allowing working parents to better balance their home and work demands, but by creating a workplace culture that fully supports employees and in turn, instils in them loyalty towards their employer.

Download the full ‘Expanded Parental Leave: Measuring the Impact of Leave on Work and Family’ report here.

Read more on the National Working Families Report here.

 

Summary of study key findings

  1. Employees highly value paid parental leave—it enhances loyalty to their employers and their identity as caregivers.
  2. Men and women strive for an egalitarian approach to sharing caregiving and household duties but gender roles persist.
  3. The vast majority of women take the full amount of leave offered to them. Men also take a substantial amount of leave and express higher levels of satisfaction with their leave experience.
  4. While respondents report they are generally well-informed about leave, there is still confusion about how leave is administered, especially among women.
  5. Workplace support for employees taking leave is high. While women enjoy greater support for leave, men taking leave is becoming more acceptable.
  6. The return-to-work experience is challenging with perceptions of less support, higher workload, and lower job satisfaction.
  7. Career advancement is a chief concern for both men and women when taking leave and returning to work.
  8. Men and women are equally concerned about their ability to combine work and family.