Distinguishing between maternity and paternity leave is outdated

Our workforce is changing. As millennials become the largest generation in the U.S. — and the largest group of new parents — benefits and policies have to adapt to their values in order to attract and retain the best talent.

Research shows that millennials want more than an office Ping-Pong table or free lunch. They want substantive benefits, including those that help them grow their families. In a study, 83% of millennials shared that they would leave their job for one with better family and lifestyle benefits. A Deloitte study found that 50% of employed adults with access to employer benefits said that if they were given the choice, they would pick more parental leave time over a pay raise at work.

There is a real opportunity to meet this growing segment of the workforce where they are, and paid family leave is one key place to do that. As we revisit our policies, we need to be thoughtful about our approach, applying an equity and inclusion lens to ensure all families’ needs are being met.

Some 114 million people in the U.S. still don’t have access to a single day of paid family leave, but for the companies that do offer paid leave, we often use language that excludes much of our workforce. Distinctions between “primary caregivers” and “secondary caregivers” or “maternity leave” and “paternity leave” disproportionately impact LGBTQ+ families, and also hurt working mothers and impact family structures—perhaps for years to come.

In the past couple of years, many companies have abandoned distinctions between “maternity leave” and “paternity leave” and instead delineate paid leave benefits by determining if the parent is a “primary caregiver” or “secondary caregiver.” Unlike “maternity leave” and “paternity leave,” primary caregiver language has the pretense of gender neutrality, and therefore seems like a more progressive and inclusive framework.

However, primary caregiver language is rife with its own contradictions — what if you’re talking to a same-sex couple? Or adoptive parents? Or a heterosexual couple who is striving for a more equal balance of caregiving responsibilities? While primary caregiver policies don’t assign a gender to the employee, it assumes a traditional — and increasingly outdated — family structure where one partner assumes the majority of the caregiving responsibilities lightly supported by the other partner.

In some families, it may be easier to delineate primary versus secondary caregivers. But as we know, modern families don’t all look the same. 78% of millennial families are dual-career households, and will need to navigate the right balance between working and parenting. LGBTQ+ family-building is also on the rise. 77% of LGBTQ+ millennials are either already parents or are considering having children, a 44% increase over their LGBTQ+ elders.

Simply put, universal paid leave is the best way to provide inclusive benefits for every family configuration. It allows parents to take leave regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, or how they came to be a parent. It’s also good business — businesses that have implemented better paid leave policies have reaped the benefits of stronger employee recruitment, retention and reduced turnover costs.

Many companies struggle with retaining women specifically, and despite many advances, 43% of women leave the workforce within one year of having a child, while 74% of them report that they “love their careers.” There are many factors that can contribute to this, but we know that in heterosexual couples, the more parental leave fathers take, the more likely mothers are to return to work full time. Creating equitable family leave policies allows parents to share caregiving responsibilities from the beginning and also sets the stage for a more equitable division of labor in the future, which will continue to pay dividends throughout an employee’s tenure at the company.

Some banks and financial institutions are leading the pack. Bank of America, for example, offers 16 weeks of paid parental leave and up to an additional 10 weeks of unpaid leave, regardless of gender or “primary” or “secondary” caregiver status. Goldman Sachs made headlines in 2019 when it announced 20 weeks of paid leave to all parents, regardless of their gender or parental status. More banks should follow suit and evolve their policies to create a corporate culture where employees — and dads, in particular — feel empowered to take the leave offered to them.

As employers, we understandably focus on designing benefits for our employees. But when we consider the full family unit, and how what we offer our employee impacts this unit, we will be more successful.

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