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Why So Many 'Groundbreaking' Company Policies Fall Short for Women

Want to know what you’re really getting right… and wrong? Let the women tell you.

Unlimited paid parental leave. Sounds amazing, right? When Netflix announced that it was offering “unlimited” (up to 12 months) paid leave to new moms and dads, its chief talent officer touted the new policy: “Each employee gets to figure out what’s best for their family.”

It’s a bold and admirable step for a US company, creating a new golden standard for other companies to strive for and setting Netflix up as a leader in promoting equality and support for working parents.

But policies are only one part of the story.

In the quest for greater equality for women in the workplace, the how’s and why’s of a policy’s implementation are often even more important than the policies themselves. Things that look great on paper (and sound even better in a press release) won't always be great in reality, while policies that may look middle-of-the-road could be fantastic depending on the culture that surrounds them.

Take it or leave it?

Is it any surprise that when women take maternity leave, they often come back to jobs that have changed, moved, or disappeared altogether? You portion off your duties to colleagues, sometimes hoping that things don’t go well without you because you want to be needed.

There’s more to the story than simply how many weeks of paid leave are written in the employee handbook. And in cases like Netflix, where there’s ambiguity around how many weeks you take, we may find that this golden standard actually causes more problems for women than it solves. You’re the one making the call on how much leave you take or whether you come back part-time at first, and that can be seen as a reflection of how dedicated you are to your employer.

As a result, even more important than policies themselves is the potential difference between a company’s policies and company realities — e.g., very few employees willing to take that full leave, as corporate culture pressures them to return early. Without understanding both, you don’t get a full picture of a workplace environment.

Take Cisco , which offers six weeks of paid maternity leave to employees. That’s far fewer than many of their tech-sector peers, yet it has a satisfaction score of 3.5 out of 5 for the “Maternity and Adoptive Leave” metric on InHerSight. IBM , on the other hand, offers 14 weeks paid and trails Cisco with a score of 3.3 from the women who work there. Factors for the discrepancy may include how welcome parents feel towards taking the full time, or how difficult it is to settle back into the workplace after taking leave.

We can’t keep having policies fall short, nor can we let company policies alone be our measure for progress. The best way to help change that is to show companies what they need to do better as well as what they’re doing right.

Take three minutes to add your voice to this important discussion.

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By Ursula Mead

CEO, InHerSight

Ursula Mead is the cofounder and CEO of InHerSight

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