This summer, it seemed like a new company was announcing expanded paid parental leave benefits every week. Virgin, Netflix, Microsoft and Adobe, just to name a few, all stepped up to provide longer paid maternity leave for new moms and paternity leave for new dads.
And just this week, a letter signed by more than 200 business professors began making the rounds, calling on federal lawmakers to support of paid leave and the FAMILY Act. These are important steps, especially considering that the United States has no federal policy ensuring paid parental leave for new moms. But simply offering paid leave isn’t always enough.
“Offering paid parental leave is a very important and necessary first step to supporting working parents,” says Scott Behson, a professor of management at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the author of The Working Dad’s Survival Guide: How to Succeed at Work and at Home. “However, without changes to organizational cultures, the policy is just a policy gathering dust in the employee manual. If employees do not feel as if they can take parental leave without jeopardizing their career trajectories, they will not make use of this policy.”
Here’s a look at a few of the reasons why paid parental leave programs alone are not enough, and some of the ways employers can help address the challenges working parents face.
Many Employees Remain Afraid to Take Time Off for Family
Even at those companies where longer maternity leave and paternity leave options are offered, many employees are still reluctant to take all of the time available to them out of fear that they’ll appear less committed to their jobs. When those at the very top of business aren’t taking time off – either for parental leave or to fulfill other family responsibilities – it sends the impression that prioritizing work over family is the expectation.
Because Mommy Taxes are Still a Thing, and Now Daddy Taxes are Too
In many workplaces, employees, and especially men, do not feel safe to “out themselves” as involved parents and do anything visible to adjust their work schedules for family matters, Behson says. And with good reason: Not only is there well established data around the so-called “mommy tax,” but new research has shown that modern dads are paying a similar financial penalty for being involved parents. “Men who take extended leave or work flexibly for family reasons often face a double stigma -- not only are they seen as violating ‘work-first’ corporate culture, they are also seen as violating traditional gender norms, which still see men as providers as opposed to involved parents,” Behson says.
And American Corporate Culture Hasn’t Caught Up to Modern Families
Our modern workforce – and Millennials, especially – have more egalitarian ideas about family dynamics than past generations in that they expect both parents to work and want to share the caregiver-breadwinner roles more equally. Company culture and workplace policies, however, continue to play catch-up. “The Norman Rockwell model of family life continues to be the prerequisite for success in corporate America, it seems,” Anne Weisberg, senior vice president of the Families and Work Institute, wrote last month in The New York Times. “It perpetuates the prototype of the ideal worker as someone who can – and does – regularly put work above everything else, including caring for oneself and one’s family.”
Transitioning To and From Parental Leave is a Challenge
The transition from workaholic to working parent is hugely challenging for men and women. It’s common for an expectant mother or father to look at a four-month – or even four-week – leave and think, “How am I going to catch up?” rather than “How wonderful I get to spend that time with my family.” Understanding this mental obstacle, as well has how operating without a valued employee can impact a team, some companies have begun new parent coaching programs to help working moms and dads through the transition and making the adjustment. These types of supports, even when they’re informal, can be hugely beneficial for new moms and dads.
Working Parents Need Flexibility
Life happens to the best of us. Kids – and nannies – get sick, day care centers and schools close unexpectedly. The mechanisms to deal with family issues when they arise are just as important as parental leave in the long run. Whether it’s equipping employees to work remotely or trusting that they’ll reward your flexibility with a job well done, working parents – like all employees – thrive in a modern workplace that does not expect them to be tethered to a desk for 8, 9 or 10 hours every day. “Just giving employees the freedom, within reason, to shift their schedules as needed to solve their own work-family juggles, can help working parents without the downside of long separations from the workplace,” Behson says.
Child Care is an Obstacle for Many Families
Someone has to take care of your employee’s child after they head back to work – and child care doesn’t come cheaply. Today, child care is the largest household expense for many American families, costing around $18,000 annually, according to Care.com's second Cost of Care report. The survey also found that almost 70 percent of working parents said the cost of care has influenced their career decisions. That’s not surprising, given the relationship many families have with child care – which is to say that they can’t work without child care, and can’t afford child care without working. Employers can help their employees manage these expenses by offering family care benefits, educating them about how Flexible Spending Accounts can help with pre-tax savings and by providing back up child care benefits when employees are in a pinch. Nearly 90 percent of working parents said they want this type of child care assistance from their employers, yet 81 percent said it’s not offered, according to the Care.com survey.
Performance Evaluations are Outdated
Tying it back into culture, a major obstacle preventing more parents from seeking out more work-life supports and flexibility is that performance evaluations focus on many outdated metrics, like time on task or even facetime in the office. In today’s world, where technology has so profoundly changed the way we work, Behson says performance evaluation systems need to be updated to put results first. “That fact that we’re still in the dark ages when it comes to performance evaluations is really holding things back,” he says. “When managers can trust that ‘hey, I’m measuring my team’s performance so I can let go of where, when and how,’ then your progress is going to happen.”