Gender Equality in the Workplace: How Leaders Can Use Parental Leaves to Amplify It

The work environment is changing. Diversity and gender equality in the workplace are in the spotlight like never before. As the emphasis on fair policies for all grows, gender equality in leaves is fast gaining traction as a topic of discussion.

Organizations assume that having a strong maternity leave policy is enough to build gender equity and ensure advancement of women. However, this is just the first step onthe ladder. To realize gender equality in the workplace, it is crucial to consider maternity, parental/paternal leave policies together and address the challenges related to paternity leaves.

Zippia, a US-based online recruitment services provider, has aggregated data from credible sources such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to its research, the US is far behind other countries in paid maternity leaves.

  • The average paid or unpaid maternity leave in the US is 10 weeks. Companies give a paid maternity leave of about 8 weeks, but this is not mandatory. The Federal law, on the other hand, stipulates an unpaid leave of 12 weeks.
  • Nearly 40% of employers give paid maternity leave in some form, while only 23% of employees in private industries have access to paid maternity leave.
  • Comparatively, Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries such as Mexico, Australia, Canada, and most European countries offer an average paid maternity leave of 18 weeks. The US is the only OECD member country with no provision for mandatory paid maternity leave.
  • Shockingly, a third of women in the US refrain from taking maternity leave.
  • The financial impact of this is rather disturbing. The lack of mandatory paid maternity leave is estimated to cost women and their families nearly $22.5 billion in wages each year.
  • Little wonder then that over 80% of Americans strongly believe federal paid maternity leave is required.

But will just strengthening the maternity leave policies have the desired impact?

Perhaps not.

The need of the hour is to strengthen the paternity leave support system for men.


First, the numbers are rather poor.

  • The average duration of paid or unpaid paternity leaves is about 1 week in the US.
  • Comparatively, it is about 6.3 weeks in the European Union.
  • Only 45% of companies have provisions for paid paternity leaves.
  • About 20% of men cite a probable setback to their career as the biggest challenge in taking paternity leave.
  • Over 75% of fathers in the US prefer to resume work in less than a week after welcoming a new child.
  • Some of the top paid paternity leave providers among OECD countries are Japan, South Korea, Spain, and Sweden. The US has zero paid leaves.

All is not gloomy, though.

After fathers spent time at home with their children during the lockdowns, the inclination toward taking paternity leaves is growing in the US, as much as it is the world over. Some of the leading examples in providing the best parental leaves are Bain & Company (26 weeks), Deloitte (16 weeks), DLA Piper (26 weeks), Etsy (26 weeks), KPMG (26 weeks), and Goldman Sachs (20 weeks).

However, there is a long way to go.

Second,strengthening paternity leaves will pave the way for gender equality, as it offers several benefits:

How fathers benefit from parental leaves

Encouraging fathers to take leaves is expected to have a broader impact on reducing the gender pay gap, ensuring gender equality, building a diverse organizational culture and questioning societal norms. This is because it questions the conventional approach of associating caregiving with women following the birth of a child.

There are other benefits too.

Paternity leaves help fathers get more involved in parenting. This not just cements the bond between dads and babies, but also improves the relationship between the parents at home. Research shows that active engagement of the father in parenting reduces conflicts between couples, besides boosting the father’s health and mental well-being.

Despite the benefits, men are rather cautious in taking parental leaves. There are certain barriers. One of their biggest fears is that taking such leaves will hinder their career growth. Moreover, in certain cultures, stigma is attached to men taking care of children, which is largely seen as a household chore to be done by women.

Hence, there is a need to support men in breaking down the barriers associated with taking paternity leaves, and educate them further on the need to open up. It is crucial to get them talking about these leaves and question the cultural norms associated with gender-based parenting.

How mothers gain from co-parenting leave policy

The highest impact is, of course, felt on women, at home and at workplace. Co-parenting boosts their overall well-being.

The effect on the career front is even more pronounced. Women at work often invite what is called the “motherhood penalty.” According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a non-profit dedicated to advancement of equity of women and girls,“Because of old workplace paradigms, becoming a mother can take a toll on a woman’s earnings and jeopardize her family’s economic security.”

Motherhood penalty is reflected in lower pay or starting salaries.It also comes in the way of hiring and recruitment of women, which puts career growth at stake. The perception is that following childbirth,a woman’s competence and commitment levels decline because of the physical exhaustion and mental occupation with caregiving to the newborn. Therefore, recruiters while hiring often prefer men over women who have just welcomed a child. This results in a pay gap between not just men and women, but between mothers and non-mothers, too. What starts as a trickle, snowballs into a wide gap in retirement savings years down the line.

Therefore, encouraging men to take co-parenting leave and shoulder the same responsibilities will level the expectations from women. This could help significantly in eliminating the pay-related disadvantages for women, and contribute to their career growth and ambition.

How does gender parity for DE&I benefit organizations?

These leaves are relevant in the current US labor market, which is transforming quickly.

Ensuring gender parity is critical for building in diversity and inclusion. A forward-looking approach will set the right precedent, especially as workforce dynamics and job requirements are changing. With work from home or hybrid work picking up, the need of the hour is to develop a people-centric mindset and question the stereotypes.

The leaves are also necessary from the employee engagement perspective – to attract and retain talent. As workforce demographics change, aspirations are changing too. The millennials and Gen Z, for instance, are very clear about their expectations from the workplace. They want to work for organizations that are progressive, offer work-life balance, and ensure holistic growth.

Paternity or maternity leaves serve as benefits that motivate employees to perform better. This not just boosts productivity but also instills responsibility and ownership. Such employee-friendly policies strengthen security.

Getting new moms to stay could bring higher returns for the businesses as well.

What must leaders do to offer gender-neutral parental leaves?

Setting the right norm or building the culture starts with the leader. You need to:

  1. Build the right policy framework: Begin by defining parental leave.

Ensure your policy does not center on the conventional definition of women as caregivers. Include the roles and responsibilities of both parents as primary caregivers of children.

When deciding on the length of leave, assess your requirements and affordability to make a workable offer. For example, you could scale up the duration gradually. You must keep the size of your company and stage of development in mind when deciding. Early-stage startups, for instance, may not have the luxury to offer what a well-established firm can.

See if you can make the parental policy mandatory. There may be an element of force in it, but it is effective in building equality. Men, as discussed earlier, may be reluctant to take paternity leave for various reasons. However, if it is mandatory, they will have little to no choice but avail of it.

Offerpaid parental leaves, to the extent your organization can afford it. This acts as an incentive. Research shows that men are more likely to go for paid leaves over unpaid parental leaves.

Follow a zero-bias hiring policy. If you are looking to partner with a hiring and recruitment firm, make sure you go for specialists that walk the talk. For example, staffing solution providers with women at key positions and a well-informed leadership are likely to have greater inclination for gender parity and/or diversity and inclusion. These firms employ bespoke tools, techniques, and proprietary frameworks for gender-neutral, merit-based, talent-driven hiring.

2. Work to change the perception—lead by example: Male leaders especially have a very important role to play.

Depending on how they view their younger colleagues who take paternity leaves, they will set the precedent for others. If, as a leader of the organization, you are required to take parental leave, you must avail of it. This will send a powerful message.

When high-profile founders and CEOs in top tech companies, such as Meta and Reddit, took paternal leaves, they were setting more than a trend. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, for example, took a two-month paternal leave in 2015 and 2017, following the births of two daughters. Co-founder of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian, took a 16-week paternity leave in 2017, after welcoming a daughter with his wife, tennis star Serena Williams. Speaking about how crucial it is for men to take full paternity leave, he said (quoted in a New York Times op-ed), “…dads, let me be your air cover. I took my full 16 weeks and I’m still ambitious and care about my career. Talk to your bosses and tell them I sent you.”   

3. Talk to your people; educate them: Communicating directly and confronting biases/stigma head-on sends out the right message across levels in the workforce.

As a first step, talk to your management team and all other senior executives to understand their mindset. Is this where the snide remarks originate? Does this rung believe family time means compromising on productivity? Are these executives struggling with diversity, even though it is often touted freely? What is the nature of their objections?

Work with your leadership team to build consensus. Begin by educating them through awareness programs, and have dedicated and frequent conversations. Explain to them the benefits of having a gender-neutral paternity leave policy, or a policy which is fair and treats people equally.

Encourage them to set the right example by taking paternity leaves if they need to, and take time off with their children or grandchildren.

Keep them informed and updated. Use data to build your case. Share information and numbers on how giving paternity leaves or following a gender-neutral policy is cost-accretive in the long run, and likely to benefit the business. Facilitating a cultural shift in mindset to build a forward-looking workplace and progressive thinking is difficult. If you have empirical proof to substantiate your points, it becomes easier.

Hold similar conversations with the line managers in your organization, as the behavior of line managers has a direct impact on an employee’s decision to take leaves. Talk to them to understand the source of opposition or bias. Is it rooted in a traditional approach, or is it because of an overemphasis on productivity? Help them understand how biases can be detrimental to business. If you find they are struggling with understanding or in identifying biases among peers, provide them with the resources, such as coaching or training, to equip them with the desired knowledge.

Having more open conversations, discouraging negative prejudices, encouraging positive workplace attitudes, and stating strictly that there will be no adverse impact on career growth, all play a crucial role.

4. Show support for your employees that opt for paternity or maternity leaves. Here are some ways:

Before they go on the break, help them setup a back-up plan. Urge their peers and reporting managers to support and cooperate. Assist them in creating an effective transition plan: how the duties at work will be shared, who will handle the responsibilities, how the tasks will be delegated till the person returns, etc.

Offer flexible working hours when they return to work. Taking care of babies is quite stressful and flexibility in schedule can reduce the stress to an extent. Ease them into their respective roles. Don’t burden with work.

Show empathy. Urge the senior executives and line managers to treat their reports with empathy. There are several ways to do this. Communicating that you understand the challenges of parenting a child or caregiving after childbirth, acknowledging the efforts they put in despite the road uphill, making a small gesture such as sending a welcome back message, or offering benefits and entitlements as incentives could convey a lot. You could also customize paternity leaves to suit individual requirements. This will make the policy flexible and enable parents to draw maximum mileage out of it.

5. Have a redress mechanism in place: Offering maternity or paternity leaves is one aspect. It is equally important to have a redress machinery where issues can be raised.

This is relevant in building a forward-thinking culture with no “flexibility stigma”. Also, an effective redress mechanism will ensure efficient and fair implementation of policies.

Make sure that line managers are not punishing anyone by being inflexible. Working parents may need flexible hours, especially after resuming responsibilities post-leave. They should be accommodated; however, for any disagreement, there should be a process with HR where they can raise the issue.

When employees know that insensitive or rude remarks, undignified conversations, or gender stereotyping will invite disciplinary action, they will be careful to not overstep the boundaries. Rules and regulations are important for creating an atmosphere of tolerance and diversity.

To conclude

Parental leaves are a highly effective tool to build gender equality in the workplace. But this is not easy.

Ingrained beliefs, conventions, and social stigma pose major hurdles. To build the right culture, you need to challenge these lines of thought. This is something that will not happen over a day or two, or by simply installing certain systems. It requires concerted efforts over a period of time.

Nevertheless, a thaw is visible. Progressive thinking is spreading as countries, societies and organizations realize the need to adopt a forward approach, both from social and economic growth perspectives. 

The time could not be riper for leaders to get more actively involved in bringing about the transformation. A prudent strategy would be to adopt a mix of continuous education, persuasion, and a healthy coercion (for course correction when needed).

Empathy and equality, therefore, should be made integral to parental leave policy. In their absence, it is meaningless.

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