While most employers realize that fathers are parents, too, the majority of U.S. employers offer minimal leave opportunities for mothers and relatively no leave opportunities for fathers. Some exceptions exist--Ernst & Young, Bank of America, Facebook and Patagonia, to name a few--but they are hardly the norm.

U.S. law does not require paid parental leave of any kind. While the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 mandates that companies with more than 50 employees provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new parents, it does not require paid leave. According to OECD, this makes us an outlier in the global community and particularly in the community of developed countries where the U.S. ranks dead last in providing protected, paid leave for mothers of newborns. And time off for fathers? More than half of the 38 OECD nations provide some type of paid time off benefit for them, but the United States is not among them.  

While legislation might not provide for parental leave any time soon, some employer perspectives and intentions are beginning to change, especially as they compete for talent. In the trenches of the day-to-day challenges in the race for the best people, creating benefits packages that entice top performers to accept job offers and stay once onboard are becoming critical tactics. Recent parental leave policy changes made by Netflix and Microsoft support this. Netflix set a new standard, allowing unlimited paid parental leave in the year following the birth or adoption of a child. And Microsoft quickly announced their new policy that enriches the current policy to 12 weeks of full pay for both mothers and fathers.

Moving the conversation from work-life balance benefits to work-life integration benefits positively affects not just today’s employees, but the children of today’s employees--tomorrow’s workforce. By making sure that children born to working parents today have ample time to bond and thrive in their earliest days, we may be ensuring that children and parents are more emotionally healthy.

Employers on Board

Employers committed to creating cultures that value employees as humans with families and full lives outside of their jobs are creating benefits packages that meet the specific needs of their workforces. And since the majority of the workforce now is made up of the millennial generation, parental leave benefits - and paid parental leave benefits in particular - are becoming more important to more employees, male and female.

Employers like Netflix, Microsoft, and even the U.S. Navy, are ahead of the curve in the United States in proving expansive paid leave for new parents. However, the provision of parental leave is just half the battle.

Perhaps the biggest hurdles facing the adoption of “parental” instead of “maternity” leave is men’s fear of being penalized for taking time off to care for newborns and newly adopted children just as they perceive women have taken significant compensation and career advancement penalties when accessing these benefits. Men are now facing the consequences of prioritizing family over jobs and careers just as women have since they joined the world of work in droves in the mid-20th century.

The world of work’s judgements about fathers who share childcare and child-rearing duties with their spouses/partners appear to be limiting the amount of time they take - even when their employers’ policies encourage the use of paid time off for fathers. In cases where employers have instituted paid parental leave policies for men as well as women, we find that men take a fraction of the time available to them. The social stigma that has attached to child rearing for women appears to be attaching even more strongly to men. One recent survey of highly educated professional fathers who had more access to paid parental leave than most U.S. workers found a substantial portion took less than the full amount of paid leave available. In that survey, fathers cited workplace pressures as a factor in the length of time off they took.

A Changing Tide?

Certainly, large employers like those mentioned above along with hundreds of small businesses not tracked by the U.S. Department of Labor-Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) are paving the way for all parents to put the health and well-being of their families ahead of their jobs. More employers are expanding paid maternity leave benefits and, in a growing number of cases, creating both paid and unpaid parental leave policies that include both parents. These forward-thinking organizations are finding that the results are substantive in reducing turnover, increasing engagement, and creating cultures that propel stronger employee well-being.