DE&I   //   June 6, 2022  ■  7 min read

How offering paid parental leave from day one is boosting gender equality in the workplace

Charlotte Joseph-Smith returned to work from parental leave in July 2021. Her baby was six months old, and despite feeling she needed more time, she was only eligible for two months of paid parental leave as she had only been with her employer for a year – the leave was incremental based on how long you’d worked there.

“I rushed back to work because I felt insecure about losing visibility, and was also running low on money from the terrible parental leave. I was so conflicted as I have always been career driven but also love being a present mom,” said Joseph-Smith, who is based in Woking, U.K.

The policy was what made her pay attention when she was approached by Remote, which helps companies hire remote staff globally by providing international payroll and HR support. Remote offers 16 weeks paid parental leave which employees are eligible to take from their start date.

“I read the handbook and started dreaming about being able to have it all,” Joseph-Smith, now a senior partnership marketing manager, told WorkLife.

The ability to have it all — promising career and fulfilling family life — can seem out of reach for many women like Joseph-Smith, whose work prospects are often confined by the tenure requirements for accessing paid parental leave. 

But Remote’s progressive approach to parental leave is part of how it has achieved an even gender distribution amongst its workforce.

“We haven’t studied if our parental leave policy is directly correlated, but we do know that offering women the ability to take full parental leave without putting their position, pay or leadership prospects at risk helps them participate in the workforce,” said Nadia Vatalidis, Remote’s vp of people.

It can also make us incredibly competitive in a country like the U.S. where there is zero requirement for companies to offer any paid parental leave. Individuals now have more freedom to walk away from poor employers, with access to a greater number of opportunities than ever.”

Employers demanding a wait period before green lighting parental leave — typically 12 months, but up to three years — do their gender diversity recruiting efforts “a major disservice”, said Ursula Mead, founder and CEO at company reviews platform for women, InHerSight.

Mead cites InHerSight survey data that shows 30% of women say parental leave is one of their top work must-haves, and 67% say benefits like paid family leave send a strong signal that a company supports women. 

Yet employers are lagging behind. Online market research firm Lucid’s recent survey of 1,000 U.K. professionals found that 82% of parents feel parental leave policies could be improved. Separately, two-thirds of working parents say their current work benefits are insufficient to take care of their family and get their jobs done.

“Putting restrictions on parental leave has the potential to negatively impact company reputation among talent,” Mead argued.

Pushing for gender equality is a big reason companies like Chief, FundApps, Seatfrog and Clearly have made their paid parental leave available either from day one, or as soon as a new employee passes probation.

Chief, a private network for senior female executives, believes it’s key for eliminating pregnancy discrimination, as pregnant candidates feel more comfortable sharing that information. Meanwhile, rail ticketing company Seatfrog’s philosophy is you can’t have a diverse organization unless specific policies foster this.

Ultimately, women shouldn’t be held back from pursuing their career goals because of family plans. That was the main motivation for Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, founder and managing director of communications agency Clearly, based in Bath, U.K.

“I can see many women switch off from new opportunities once they become pregnant for fear of losing parental benefits, but that shouldn’t be the case,” MacKenzie-Cummins said.

“What if their current role isn’t right for them and now is the time to move on? By having time-served conditions in place, women may feel effectively handcuffed to their present employer.

“Yet, if another employer was more prepared to provide full parental benefits regardless of tenure of service, then they win and so does the woman herself,” he added.

But is a minimum tenure for a benefit like paid parental leave just how companies can be sure an employee isn’t just in it for the perk?

“This seems reasonable – especially now with so much turbulence in the workforce market. Many employers try to achieve a balance between what’s fair to the employee, while trying to avoid a ‘hit and run’ by new a recruit, who may file after being hired and then promptly leave,” said Christine Spadafor, a lecturer on strategic leadership at Dartmouth University’s Tuck School of Business.

Yet there’s no data proving people exploit such policies, counters diversity and inclusion consultant Kim Crowder. 

“There is, however, overwhelming data that shows employees, especially women, are receiving less overall support in the workplace around the needs they have to raise their families and provide.

“The only way we will get to a place of equity is to intentionally offer more support, including doing that in ways that may feel drastic based on a lack of doing so in the past.”

3 Questions with Brigitte Weaver, senior associate at Katten Muchin Rosenman UK

Recent research has shown that RTO anxiety is widespread, how are you handling that at your law firm?

Whilst a return to the office on flexible two/three-day basis is strongly encouraged, employees who have identified themselves as vulnerable or anxious are in continuous dialogue with their direct managers about managing their needs. HR have weekly one-to-one catch ups with employees who are really struggling, and some more serious cases may be referred to occupational health. On a case-by-case basis, we have also allowed particularly vulnerable or anxious staff to travel at non-peak times. We have also introduced app-based support, so staff have access to independent counseling sessions which people find helpful. If staff genuinely have an issue returning to the office in the long term, they are asked to put in a flexible working request, and this will be reviewed and dealt with by the firm in the normal way.

What is a mental health first aider’s role and responsibility, and how will they help with this issue?  

Our Mental Health Aiders attended a two day training course (with MHFA England) where they learned about various mental health conditions, how to spot signs that someone might be struggling, strategies for opening up discussions about mental health and how to signpost colleagues resources that might be able to provide them with proper support. Their role is not formally to actually provide support. They are supposed to be another person in the office who might help spot that something isn’t quite right. Of course, if both parties feel comfortable talking about issues, we are all encouraged to be open, honest with one another and deal with issues as they arise.

What do you think are the stakes, if employers ignore these early warning signs from distressed employees? 

Employers have duty of care to support the well-being of their employees. In the short term, increased sickness absence is highly likely which in turn will lead to a downturn in performance and productivity. Ultimately people will leave if they don’t feel supported. There are many firms that will offer flexible hybrid options with competitive salaries.

By the numbers

  • 80% of professionals across the U.S., U.K and Germany move employers in order to be promoted.
    [Source of data: McKinsey report.]
  • 4 in 5 workers feel their workplace is toxic and more than half (56%) don’t think it’s a priority for their employer to address it.  
    [Source of data: Monster report.]
  • 66% of 600 U.S. Gen Z professionals polled who are working from the office full time said they wished they were hybrid.
    [Source of data: Deloitte report.]

What else we’ve covered

  • Men mentoring women is considered essential for getting more women in senior roles, but many are uncomfortable doing it. A reciprocal program pioneered by a U.K. organization aims to change that.
  • Now in-person mental healthcare has returned, therapists are redesigning their workspaces – and the traditional lumpy couch and shelfful of well-worn psychology books will no longer cut it.
  • Michael Wanderer, chief people officer at Angi, the platform that connects consumers with home improvement providers, is taking a wait-and-see-approach to return to the office.
  • Workers are now citing lack of technology support, out-of-date video conferencing tech and faulty headsets/poor audio as new ergonomic stress triggers.
  • The remote office has made working from anywhere standard practice. For one agency, it’s brought advertisers along for the ride, with employees joining ranks with clients to make the remote-first model a more seamless, and productive, one.
  • Recent layoffs at tech giants was jarring. But experts say hiring, despite market uncertainty, is likely to remain strong over the long haul.
  • To dodge being held back by their age in job interviews, some older candidates that can afford it, are taking drastic measures like plastic surgery, in order to boost their chances of getting hired.
  • 85% of women won’t accept a job offer from companies without active DE&I initiatives, like increasing female leadership.

What we’re reading

  • It isn’t the office people hate, it’s the commute. That’s why urban areas where people live closer to work have a higher return-to-office rate [WSJ.]
  • Elon Musk sent a controversial memo to staff to return to the office or “pretend to work elsewhere.” [The Guardian.]
  • It’s hard to keep up with everyone’s constantly evolving return-to-office plans, here is a comprehensive list of businesses’ current plans [Hubble.]