You might have noticed LinkedIn buzzing this summer with talk of companies cutting parental leave policies. The chatter stemmed from a Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) benefits study from June. SHRM reported that the number of companies offering paid maternity leave dropped to 35 percent in 2022 from 53 percent in 2020, and the number offering paid paternity leave fell to 27 percent from 44 percent.
My reaction as I read the posts was… huh?
The U.S. federal policy on parental leave has remained ridiculously lacking, but companies have been stepping up, or so I thought. They had listened to studies showing talent stays at companies with supportive parental policies. Could there really be enough concern about inflation to cause businesses to slash the benefits that matter so much to employees?
Turns out, the new data might not be telling such a negative story that it seems to. I talked to Lori Mihalich-Levin, founder of Mindful Return, a program that helps both employees and employers navigate parental leave, giving new parents resources to transition into a successful working parent life. She told me what the experts were saying about this study. She also outlined how paid parental leave policies can continue to improve, and what we can all do to help workplaces be even more supportive of working parents.
Parental leave policies being cut? Not so fast…
Mihalich-Levin says the story these articles are telling is not what she’s seeing in the market, and they may be more “clickbaity” than accurate.
“In the companies that I work with, I have not seen this at all. In fact, pretty much all of the companies I’ve worked with have done better over the past two years,” Mihalich-Levin says.
She—and other people who are familiar with parental leave policies and speak on these topics regularly—take issue with the study.
“We don’t believe there’s necessarily an apples to apples comparison going on in the SHRM data. In 2020, I think they surveyed 25 percent fewer companies, so I don’t know who got added to the survey or what industry they were in… It may very well not be that any of the companies from 2020 reduced their leave, but that companies were added to the survey that had smaller amounts of leave available. I don’t believe I saw in any of their reports a question in the survey that said, 'Did you reduce your parental leave?' So, that wasn’t something they were asking—they just took two percentages, and I think mismatched them. Because that’s not what I’m seeing in the market.”
Of course, it’s great news that we aren’t going backwards, but it’s not time to get comfortable with the status of paid parental leave in the U.S. Fixing the issue can happen in a lot of ways, and it’ll take help from non-working parents to get the job done.
Companies pick up the slack from federal parental leave policy
Maternity leave policies have improved significantly in the past 10 years. Mihalich-Levin has seen this firsthand.
“When I took a paid leave from a trade association in Washington, D.C., I had one week paid. By the time I left that association, they were up to four weeks, and I’m pretty sure since then, it has probably doubled or gone beyond that. I’ve watched a lot of organizations do a lot more to equalize and normalize paid leave.”
Ask any woman who took time off to have a child 10 or 20 years ago about their work experience to hear how bad it was. TV host Kelly Ripa said in an interview she got zero weeks of paid maternity leave in her contract when she joined “Live with Regis and Kelly” in 2001. “That was just a sign of the times,” she said. “I didn’t have maternity leave on ‘All My Children,’ either.” (Stars: they’re just like us…!)
But the most significant improvements over time haven’t been from the U.S. government, despite some changes in their family-related policies. Instead, individual businesses have developed their own ways to support growing families.
“I feel more optimistic about employer paid parental leave policy, and even state-based parental leave policy, than I do about national paid parental leave and family leave,” Mihalich-Levin says. “I think I’m still reeling from the loss of the paid parental leave provision that was in Build Back Better, and I’m feeling fairly pessimistic about the opportunity for the country as a whole to adopt a policy like one that exists pretty much all over the world except here. But when it comes to companies, I think there’s a lot of progress being made.”
While this progress helps millions of people, reform at the federal level should remain a priority. There are still a lot of working parents who are not included in companies’ current paid parental leave policies because of where they work or how they choose to grow their family.
“It leaves the policies vulnerable, and it leaves populations vulnerable that don't have the power to advocate for themselves. It also leaves a lot of smaller companies vulnerable that just aren’t getting included in some of these bigger mammoth parental leave year off policies and things like that,” Mihalich-Levin says. “I feel like a significant portion of the U.S. is left out of that. And I think the average amount of leave, not even paid leave, that a woman takes in the U.S. is just around two weeks. That is not okay! So, I think we do need a national parental leave policy.”
What we also need is more equally and easily accessible resources and information for new working parents. Mihalich-Levin knows from experience how isolating this time can be.
“The advice that I found at the time [I had my kids]—and my oldest is 11 and a half so this was a decade ago—was, ‘Don’t talk about your kids at the office; don't put your pictures of them on your desk; you might leak on your shirt if you’re pumping; just suck it up.’ That was not particularly helpful, and it caused me to feel even more alone.”
That’s one reason why Mihalich-Levin developed a program to help employees transition to working parents and give them a community to learn from. Another reason was to keep women from leaving the workforce if they really didn’t want to.
“I have very much focused on working on parental leave issues as a way to stop the leaky women’s leadership pipeline. Because I feel like a lot of women just sort of fall out of the path toward leadership roles when they have small children,” Mihalich-Levin says. “I became very adamant that retention was a real reason why I was doing this work. The national average in terms of women returning to work after parental leave is around 64 percent, so about a third don’t go back.”
Mihalich-Levin compared that number to the amount of people going through her Mindful Return program to see if it was working.
“We looked at the first thousand people who went through the Mindful Return program, and we looked at a five-year period. We found that 85 percent of the people who had been through this transition back program were still at their same company, and 93 percent were still in the workforce. So, what that says to me is providing support to new parents through this really tricky transition period and being an employer that says, ‘I’m here to give you tools to work through it,’ really matters. People stay. And they get their head around the idea that being a parent and a leader is not something that’s incompatible with one another. In fact, there are skills we gain from parenthood that we bring to leadership and there are leadership skills we bring back home.”
Besides offering access to programs and communities like Mihalich-Levin’s, there is plenty companies can do to expand their paid parental leave policies.
How companies can improve parental leave right now
Mihalich-Levin says one key part of a strong paid parental leave policy is to make sure everyone has access to the same benefits and isn’t put in different “classes” based on their rank or level in the company.
“I think it’s really important that the policies can benefit everyone equally across the board,” she says. “There have been plenty of examples of companies that have been very clear that hourly workers are able to take the same type of paid parental leave as their C-suite type leaders.”
Another aspect to change is gendered policies where leave is specified for a woman vs. man, mother vs. father, or primary vs. secondary caregiver.
“There are a lot of problems with trying to distinguish between primary and secondary caregivers,” Mihalich-Levin says. “As an employer, I think you’re only setting yourself up for trouble when you make that distinction. In the world we are living in, many households have two working parents, so there is no primary caregiver. This afternoon, for example, I will be the primary caregiver for two hours, and then tonight my husband will be the primary, so it’s sort of a baton passing.
“Also, you run into trouble because if you automatically assume that the woman is the primary, then you’ve just made a gendered assumption. It also begs the question of how you intend to define ‘primary.’ Is it who changes the most diapers this week? It just is not something that you, as an employer, probably want to get into the thick of.”
Mihalich-Levin says it’s also best for paid parental leave policies to be inclusive of all types of parents, no matter their specifics on how they expand their family.
“I strongly encourage employers to give an equal amount of leave, regardless of how one came to parenthood, whether it’s by adoption or surrogacy or however else they became a parent. The leave policy should reflect all of those reasons why one might go out to bond with a baby.”
Read more: Your Guide to FMLA/Maternity Leave
A good paid parental leave policy goes beyond time off
There are plenty of benefits and resources companies can offer in addition to a generous amount of time off.
Outline a “ramp up” period
First, employers should consider providing support in the weeks leading up to parental leave, plus those after an employee returns.
“I’d say a very flexible on and off ramp policy that is institutionalized, meaning it’s part of the automatic benefit that you provide, is really helpful,” Mihalich-Levin says. “And having an on and off ramp percentage that decreases as you go on to leave, and a percentage that increases as you ramp back up after leave—that does not result in a pay cut—is also another really wonderful benefit. If companies say they can’t afford to pay 60 percent, for example, on the way back in for that first month or two, the flip side of that is, the employee is ramping back up anyway—they’re not at full tilt the first day back—so you might as well get some credit for having a ramp up policy at full pay when they’re actually ramping up.”
Focus on parental leave, not just maternity leave—and encourage taking it
Companies can make sure to remove all the cultural pressure to not take time off, something that still exists even if it’s never explicitly stated. This is especially true for fathers and caretakers who aren’t giving birth to the new child.
“One very simple thing that a manager can do is when they find out that a man is going to become a father, they can say to them, ‘When are you planning to take your leave?’ instead of ‘Are you going to be taking any leave?’ Mihalich-Levin says. “It’s a very tiny wording change, and it just flips the assumption that it’s not normal to take a leave. I believe very deeply that the more we normalize caregiving for men, the better off women will do in their careers, and there’s data to support that. This is not just a women’s issue, and if women want to level the playing field, we all have to take leave.”
Offer childcare to working parents
“I’d say another important benefit is caregiving assistance,” Mihalich-Levin says. “The gold standard—the ideal—is employee-sponsored child care. If employers are saying they want you back in the office, it would be super enticing to go back if child care were on-site, and you could drop your baby off there. For me, I found it really helpful to have a back up care benefit whenever I came back from leave. The law firm where I worked had a certain number of days that were subsidized by the firm where you could either take your child to a center-based backup care or have a nanny come to your house for the day—or however many days you needed.”
Help working parents understand what’s available to them
Finally, companies should also prioritize clearly communicating their parental support policies and benefits to employees. Just having them in a handbook isn’t enough.
“You can have the best policies on the books, but how people actually understand them, implement them, and talk about them is so important,” Mihalich-Levin says. “One thing we’ve been doing a lot lately is manager training around parental leave—teaching managers how to have those difficult conversations with people and how to not make assumptions about what the people who are going out on leave will want. I think oftentimes, there are potentially benevolent assumptions that are made, like ‘that person won’t want that difficult project’ or ‘they won’t want to travel,’ when in reality, you just curtailed their career advancement by making a decision for them that they may not have made themselves. So, teaching managers not to make assumptions, to ask the good questions, and to help them reframe some of their wording really makes a difference in the culture of the organization.”
Read more: Pregnancy Benefits Questions to Ask HR
How you can help your company change their parental leave policy
With all these improvements possible, how do they actually happen?
Anyone—not just working parents or human resources employees—can help reform their company’s parental leave policy. A good place to start is getting clear on what’s currently available.
“I remember taking my parental leave alongside a friend in the office next door to me, and she and I were both fed different information about what the policies actually were,” Mihalich-Levin says. “I wish that was a unique story, but it’s not, so I think trying to get to the root of what the current lay of the land is can help.”
First, reach out to people at similar companies to get a better sense of what the industry “norm” is.
“Companies themselves can access benchmarking data through any number of sources,” Mihalich-Levin says. “In the legal world where I work, the Diversity & Flexibility Alliance is a big organization that does benchmarking around parental leave and flexibility policies. So, from an organizational perspective you can be looking out for best practices and seeing what your peers are doing. And as a current employee who’s trying to advocate, you can start to get your nose on the ground and say, ‘Our 10 competitors are doing this thing, and that doesn’t look really good from a recruiting perspective if we aren’t.’”
The next step is organizing to talk to your company leaders together. As Mihalich-Levin writes on her blog, there is safety in numbers when you’re advocating for better parental leave policies.
“Once you find the information, gather voices together and go to your manager and say something like, ‘Hey, this is something I’ve noticed is inconsistent or perhaps isn’t the best policy…’ or, ‘It seems like our company is really trying to do a lot for us—where can we consolidate this information so everyone can find out about it?’”
Another key part of reforming parental leave policy is having parents—who know what it’s like to deal with limited parental resources—be in charge of the policy.
“It’s a very different conversation when I talk to someone in HR who has been through the transition to working parenthood, than it is talking to someone who perhaps is not acquainted with what goes on in working parenthood,” Mihalich-Levin says. “So I think it is a change in leadership. It's also working moms elevating the issue and raising voices together to say, ‘Wait a minute here! Why is everyone stepping on us?’”
“It also makes sense to talk to your diversity and inclusion team because working parenthood is an inclusion issue in the workplace. See if you can get allies on board to help you with those conversations. You can all collaborate to say the policy needs to be fixed in all these different ways.”
Many women have faced—and still face—consequences for standing up for their rights. We should all make sure that doesn’t happen to women, and anyone, who speaks up for better parental leave.
“I think there’s always a risk of repercussions any time you’re the squeaky wheel. I’m personally a believer in making good trouble,” Mihalich-Levin says. “There's always a risk when you raise your voice, and yes is it worth raising!”