Parental leave announcements have become like a competitive sport; every day, a shiny, new one comes along with a new-and-improved spin to one-up others in the field.
The announcements have gotten a lot of press. Trouble is, there’s question about what these offerings really mean. Working mothers still aren’t flourishing. According to the recent Bright Horizons Modern Family Index (MFI), the very act of announcing babies continues to compromise women’s careers. Professional lives are stalling when parents go out after a child. If the only thing wrong with parental leave is using it…what is it really worth?
Parental Leave is Not a Magic Bullet
The conversation comes at a time when companies are looking to diversify their workplaces. A recent New York Times article chronicled the feverish competition for women leaders – one executive in tech said she turned down nearly two dozen offers for meetings before accepting a role on a board. It’s a worthy demonstration for the most senior employees. But like maternity leave itself, those initiatives are little more than window dressing if they don’t include policies that trickle through all levels of the workplace. “The focus on maternity leave gives the impression that if only America had a reasonable policy, women would be able to participate fully and equally in the workforce,” reads an article on The Atlantic about women’s retreat from the workforce. “The real challenge is everything that comes after.”
That means the most high-profile initiatives– such as leave – are just the beginning. What matters as much (and perhaps more) is what’s happening on either end of maternity leave:
- Are women being greeted with skepticism when they announce a baby is on the way? They told our Modern Family Index, they are.
- Are they suddenly looking a little less ready for that promotion? Again yes.
- Do they have visible development pathways? Not so much.
- When they come back, are they greeted with doubtful managers who expect them to fall down on the job, and so deny them fulfilling roles? The MFI survey says…yes.
Women Leaders: The Potential Gains (and Losses)
Why all the focus on women? At roughly half the workforce, women are earning more of today’s college degrees than their male counterparts. They’re also among the workforce’s most accomplished employees (fun fact: a study in JAMA showed that women doctors have slightly better outcomes than their male counterparts). And, more and more of them are waiting to have babies until they’ve established their careers. That’s a substantial percentage of employees (not to mention a big chunk of skills and institutional knowledge) at risk if these women aren’t viable parts of the workforce. And more than half told our Modern Family Index said they expect motherhood to mean a job change.
Truly diversified companies see women as a resource, not a risk factor. They offer tangible tools for families (onsite child care, flex time) and demonstrated support for careers (growth opportunities, promotions). And they know flashy symbolic gestures will only get them so far. Success in the current and future talent market will require stemming the loss of promising women leaders from their workforces.
And maternity leave alone can’t stop the leak.