This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on August 27, 2015
President Obama, during his State of the Union address earlier this year, bemoaned the fact that the United States is the only high-income nation in the world that does not offer a paid maternity leave program. Around Mother’s Day, Hillary Clinton released a video passionately declaring her support for paid family leave. Finally, momentum is building to develop a federal program that provides support to families of newborn babies. The key question is: How will it be structured?
Earlier this month, technology companies may have provided some answers. Netflix, Microsoft and Adobe announced generous family leave programs that follow in the footsteps of tech brethren like Google and Facebook. No doubt policy makers are considering these programs very closely when developing family leave proposals for policy implementation at the national level.
Right now, only 12 percent of private sector workers in America have access to paid family leave. Tech companies are some of the elite organizations committed to providing their employees with this benefit. Their main goal is to attract and retain employees by providing them with ample, flexible time to provide a newborn with a healthy foundation for life. Here’s the problem: All of these programs are sexist. They reward men at a disproportionately higher rate than women and/or fail to provide women with the comprehensive benefits they require. To ensure optimal results, designers of federal family leave policy must develop programs that better address women’s needs for the simple reason that it is women–not men–who carry, give birth to, and breastfeed babies.
Consider the Netflix family leave program. Men and women employed by Netflix will have the option to take off up to one year of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. This seems like a radical step forward, given that right now most American workers can only qualify for 12 weeks of unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act. Since the same benefits are offered to both men and women, it might also seem that, from a gender equity perspective, the Netflix program is fair.
The fly in the ointment is that women who bear children sustain dramatic short-term, long-term and even permanent physical and emotional changes. The joy of bringing a new life into the world also brings weight gain, back pain, bloating, nausea and fatigue. In extreme cases, some pregnant women may require bed rest for a significant portion of their prenatal experience. Recovery is no picnic either, especially if surgery is involved. As for nursing? It’s physically challenging, it’s time-consuming and its lack of social acceptance can create emotional burdens for nursing women. So from a work versus reward perspective, the men of Netflix are receiving a greater value in family leave benefits than women. That makes the program sexist.
Compared to what’s available to average Americans, the programs of other tech companies are innovative and generous, too. Example attributes include multiple months of leave for mothers; leave measured in months, not weeks, for fathers; and additional leave provided to the “primary caregiver.” These are great ideas. But creating a foundation for a healthy baby doesn’t begin after the baby is born. For women, it starts during pregnancy. Unfortunately, most existing corporate and federal family leave policies fail to take this into consideration.
For instance, tech companies are renowned for their hard-driving cultures and long hours. This dog-eat-dog culture is epitomized at Amazon, where 75 percent of managerial positions are held by men. Now consider that in fiscal year 2013, 5,342 pregnancy discrimination charges were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), as well as with state and local Fair Employment Practices agencies. Further, over the last ten years, 70 percent of the pregnancy discrimination cases investigated by the EEOC resulted in firing of the employee. Pregnancy discrimination not only exists, it also results in women losing their jobs. Those that do not lose their jobs may experience some level of physical and/or emotional trauma, which can negatively affect the development of a fetus. Therefore, any family leave program that does not include provisions to safeguard the pregnant working woman is inadequate.
One of the key contributors to the development of these family leave policies is the zeitgeist of gender neutrality. Gender neutrality blurs the lines of traditional male and female characteristics and roles. In extreme interpretations of the phenomenon, attributes of gender are irrelevant; males and females are interchangeable. This may explain why, at Netflix, men and women receive the same benefits. Their roles as workers and as parents are viewed as interchangeable.
Make no mistake, however. There’s nothing gender neutral about having a baby. Pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum recovery are strictly women’s issues. Since healthy women are the foundation for producing healthy babies, the design of any family leave program must prioritize the needs of women over those of men.
That is, until men can have babies…