Maternity Leave: How Effective Are the Strategies Pursued by Organizations?
While women have earned their way into the workplace to be treated as equals alongside men, part of what still makes women unique is their ability to be mothers and to carry a child. Mothers play an integral role in society, especially in the early days of when a child is born: the mother is the nurturer, the consoler, the shelter, and the provider. The mother’s bond with the newborn is effected over the first few weeks that the child is alive and this bond plays a significant role in the development of the child over the course of time. As society is always dependent upon well developed persons for the sake of its own future, the benefits of maternity leave can easily be premised upon this point.
Given the recent momentum toward more-generous family-leave policies in both the public and private sectors, it’s reasonable to ask: Is the U.S. finally moving toward a workplace that is more supportive of caregiving? Maybe—but change won’t happen overnight. After all, several family-leave bills introduced in Congress over recent years stalled due to the costs associated with them or because they were deemed unfriendly to employers. Most legal experts expect President Trump’s proposal to meet a similar fate. Trump campaigned on the promise to bring six weeks of paid maternity leave to working mothers. Under Trump’s policy, new moms would receive 46 percent of their salary during the time off, paid for by reducing waste and abuse, such as overpayments, from within the unemployment insurance system. The plan would apply only to women who have undergone childbirth. While Trump’s proposal has been criticized for excluding adoptive parents and fathers, even its opponents concede that it is a step in the right direction. “I’m happy that he’s talking about it because traditionally Republicans haven’t,” says Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. However, Trump’s suggested funding source—using monies freed up by reducing waste—is not sustainable, Mathur says, because there are likely only a limited number of areas where expenditures can be reduced in the unemployment insurance system. Leaders at EY decided to improve the organization’s family-leave offerings after conducting surveys among its mostly Millennial workforce, while also reviewing and sponsoring studies on the benefits of offering paid parental leave. “We did analysis, we built a business case, and we built support,” Altobello explains. “We did what we did based on what people want. Everyone needs to do what works for them.” Terakeet took a similar approach. As a result of studying what its employees value most, the company recently adopted a policy that covers any employee eligible for job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The plan includes up to eight weeks at full salary and an additional four weeks at 50 percent pay, with the option to supplement the difference with traditional paid time off. The company’s leaders monitor workers’ needs continuously to create what Thornton calls a “culture of feedback,” enabling them to nimbly adjust offerings accordingly. “We send out surveys; we conduct ‘ask-me-anything’ sessions facilitated by all levels of leadership; we meet regularly with midlevel managers to solicit feedback; we ask what is working and what is not,” Thornton says.
Starting or adding to a family should be cause for joy and celebration. Yet, for many parents, the birth or adoption of a child means stretched finances and concern for care of their child when they must return to work. The fundamental shifts in family and work patterns over the past several decades have brought the demand for time off to address family needs to the national spotlight. As a result of shifting gender roles, diverse family structures, and economic need, the concept of a “traditional family” (two parents, one employed) has been replaced by dual-earning couples and single parent households (National Partnership for Women & Families, 2012). Theworkforce in America has changed. Women’s wages are critical to a family’s financial security. “Women are now the primary or co-breadwinners in more than six out of 10 households, and nearly 40 percent are the main or sole breadwinner.” There is much progress to be made at a national level to support the new reality of the American workforce, as the United States is one of very few countries that does not guarantee any paid leave. During President Obama's second term as President, he proposed legislation that would provide federal employees with six weeks of paid administrative leave for the birth, adoption, or foster placement of a child. When he announced his proposal during a State of the Union address, he said, “It’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue or a women’s issue." In fact, a parental leave policy should be flexible, gender-neutral, and counteract unconscious bias. Parents should feel supported, regardless of their gender, to build successful careers and nurture their families (Miller, C., 2015).
To sum up, the return to work after parental leave is a challenging transition for women, with a significant risk of career derailment. We identify some key changes that can significantly improve the experience of these mothers and lead to better outcomes for parents and organizations alike. Most of the changes we propose can be implemented without significant cost. A key point of departure is to reflect on the corporate culture around parental leave and to educate managers about how they can best work with returning mothers to ensure a smooth transition, with a focus on open conversations around their preferences.
National Partnership for Women & Families, “Expecting Better: A State-by-State Analysis of Laws that Help New Parents.” Second Edition, May 2012
United States Department of Labor, DOL Policy Brief: Why Parental Leave for Fathers is So Important for Working Families. June 2015.
Miller, C. “The Economic Benefits of Paid Parental Leave”. The New York Times. Jan 30, 2015.