Let’s Ban Maternity and Paternity Leave Forever

If we want more gender equality in the workplace, we need to create better paid leave policies for everyone. The topic of paid parental leave has become increasingly important as organizations seek to increase the number of women at all levels in their organization. However, as many organizations are finding out the hard way, this will mean taking a hard look at their paid parental leave policies. And not just for women, but for men too.

Perhaps the first step is to stop separating maternity leave, from paternity leave, from adoptive parental leave, and harmonize one parental leave for all.

A BCG study has shown that employers see a solid business case for offering paid leave such as improved retention and ability to attract talent. With more dual career households and females as primary breadwinners, both parents are increasingly involved in caregiving.

Earlier this year Chris Nassetta, the President and CEO of Hilton, wrote about why paid family leave is good for business. Over two years ago, Hilton made updates to their paid family leave benefits so that all employees, salaried and hourly, had access to paid leave, as well as assistance with adoption expenses. Nassetta also stated that spending time with family should not be a luxury allowed only to certain industries, professions or types of employees. 

This shift will require that organizations be more deliberate and open-minded in how they figure out this challenge.

Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minster, talked about figuring out the challenge of parental leave at the Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit in Washington, D.C. Often praised for his accomplishment of creating a Cabinet with an equal number of men and women, he knows that the real challenge is retaining talented women, not only because they are still very much asked to operate in an old-fashioned man’s game of politics, but because there are different realities that only women face.

Last month, one of Trudeau’s Ministers announced she was pregnant, something that no other administration has had to handle before. There is no policy written for this to date. But Trudeau’s response is that together they will look at how things need to change in the workplace and show that a Minister can be a mom. Together, they will write a policy that makes sense for the nature of government service and for the family.

But offering parental benefits is just the first step. I have spoken with countless women and men who suffer repercussions from taking advantage of these benefits. The backlash women and men suffer, however, is quite different. For women, it’s the fear of getting back on the career trajectory after time away. For men, it’s often the backlash of taking leave at all. Take the story of a young man from a global consulting firm.

I was leading a discussion with senior HR and Heads of Diversity & Inclusion from some of North America’s largest companies. A head of HR from a consulting firm told the story of a young man on his team who asked permission to take paternity leave. The HR Leader was a staunch advocate of family benefits and equality of care and was at first disappointed that the young man felt he needed to ask permission at all given the policy was offered by the organization. But he was even more disappointed at the backlash that the man received from his colleagues by way of jests and jokes that taking paternity leave was not a manly thing to do. His story showed that offering a policy and supporting a policy are two very different things.

Hopefully, this response will soon change as men begin to speak out about the benefits of taking parental leave. Airbnb Co-Founder, Nathan Blecharczyk, wrote a commentary on why fathers need parental leave too. He shared how spending time caring for his family made him a better leader. He extends this opportunity to Airbnb employees through paid parental benefits and an option to transition back to a 4-day work week.

In fact, companies who do not provide equal access for men and women may face backlash like J.P. Morgan did this year when one of their male employees accused the firm of discrimination against fathers. Their policy distinguished primary and non-primary caregivers, and the male employee was denied leave on primary caregiving grounds.

Organizations say they want to make true movement on creating a more gender diverse workforce, and have the ability to attract and retain the best talent. It’s time then to ban maternity, paternity and adoptive leave policies for a unified parental leave. It’s time to look at policies that that don’t reinforce the stereotype that raising children is solely women’s work. It’s time for men to have equal access and acceptance for taking parental leaves. I’d love to hear how your organization is doing just that.