Observation Deck

The Baby Benefits Club

Generous parental-leave policies at Netflix and Virgin might signal a shift in the global labor market.

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This past summer, several prominent firms seemed to be competing for the title of America’s most family-friendly company. In August, Netflix announced plans to offer new mothers and fathers “unlimited leave” — that is, as much time off as they want in the first year after a child’s birth. Microsoft countered quickly, promising to increase its own paid leaves substantially. Facebook had already made its mark, granting four months of paid time off for both parents and $4,000 in “baby cash.”

It’s tempting to see these policies as early evidence that the U.S. labor market, at least at its upper end, might finally be pushing in the direction of gender equality and more accommodating family practices. For decades, women streaming into the professional workforce have been trying to balance the demands they’ve found there with the ones surrounding them at home, yet among industrialized nations, the United States is the only country that does not guarantee the right to paid leave. Sociologists have long known that more generous maternity (and paternity) leaves would allow greater numbers of parents to remain in the workforce. And members of the millennial generation (burned, perhaps, by watching their baby-boomer parents struggle to mesh career and personal lives) have been pushing for more workplace perks — casual dress codes and bring-your-dog-to-work days, for instance — ever since they first entered offices. Extending largesse into the more crucial area of parenting seems like such an obvious way for companies to go.

If one looks closely at some of the newly hyped parental-leave plans, however, limitations are in the small print. Netflix’s policy is offered not to all of the firm’s 2,000-plus workers, but only to those employed by its streaming division, the company’s fastest-growing slice. Meanwhile, Richard Branson’s Virgin, headquartered in the United Kingdom, recently began offering both mothers and fathers (including adoptive ones) up to a whopping 52 weeks of fully paid shared leave, but this policy applies to only those who work in Virgin Management, the company’s investment and brand-licensing arm. That includes about 140 people based in London and Geneva out of more than 50,000 working worldwide in the Virgin empire. (Also, only employees who’ve been at the company for more than four years qualify for the full-salary benefit; those who’ve worked for less time will only get a percentage.)

Sadly, many employees who work in these types of divisions are also the ones least likely to take advantage of the policies. That’s because there’s a clash between values and practice: Even if a company understands that retaining a diverse, talented workforce means helping high-potential staff through the pressures of family obligations, it faces an inherent contradiction between wanting to give its workers time away and needing them for the projects at hand. Employees feel this tension too. Yahoo offers 16 weeks of paid leave for mothers who give birth and $500 in cash for baby-related purchases, but its CEO, Marissa Mayer, whose responsibilities cannot easily be tucked away for chunks of time, recently acknowledged that she would be taking virtually no time off around the birth of her twins. Mayer announced instead that she plans “to approach the pregnancy and delivery as I did with my son three years ago, taking limited time away and working throughout.”

Because many of the ostensibly groundbreaking leave benefits are extremely generous, they transfer the burden of definition to the new parent — along, presumably, with a fair dose of guilt. This phenomenon has existed for several decades in Scandinavia, where new fathers have not been inclined to take leaves — even very liberal ones — unless explicitly given incentives to do so. Especially in fast-paced, high-growth firms, the pressure to stay on the job can prove too strong to resist.

Where new policies are bound to be more successful is beyond the confines of the powerful, workaholic classes. Indeed, the employees who most need generous plans are those who labor further down the hierarchy: Netflix’s DVD sorters, for instance, or Amazon’s warehouse pickers.

Historically, people hoping to improve the leave situation have fought from the bottom up, using the heft of unions or the promise of legislative change. For the most part, they’ve failed. (That said, outside the United States, many blue-collar workers do receive paid leaves around the birth of a child, ranging from 12 weeks of maternity leave in India to 14 months shared leave in Germany.) By contrast, policy changes that come from top workers at some of the world’s biggest firms could have a better chance of leaving a mark. Perhaps by setting the standard so high and so publicly, in other words, plans like those that emerged this summer may trickle down to a much broader, less privileged slice of the global labor market. Following the lead of the storied stars of the high-tech economy, other firms hoping to lure similar pools of talent — in America and abroad — could follow suit. Norms could shift, more workers might clamor for similar treatment, and it would be harder for their organizations to refuse them.

Change won’t come quickly, and it won’t be smooth. Few social changes are. But even if a firm’s executives don’t take a full year of leave now open to them (most of them probably won’t); even if more women than men take advantage of a policy (they probably will); and even if the highest-ranking employees return to their desks only days after labor, the sheer fact that new options exist is important. Because the force of their example is there, and the attendant argument is simple: If Netflix, Facebook, and Microsoft can afford to lose their most irreplaceable engineers for four months, can’t they give the women in their mailrooms a break too?

Illustration by Matthew Hollister

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