Sometimes, I jot down ideas for blog posts. Recently, I was looking over a few of these jottings and found this:
Paternity leave seems to be the new "hot" topic. How does that relate to maternity leave? Will we finally be able to move beyond the concept of pregnancy as a disability and admit it's important for parents of both sexes to take care of and bond with their babies? And that even among those eligible for the Family and Medical Leave Act's 12 weeks unpaid leave, few can afford to take it?
The paragraph jumped right out at me, because I'd just read a report by blogger Scott Behson about new parental leave guidelines issued by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. Essentially, the guidelines make explicit a good for goose/good for gander parity: if an employer gives women time off to care for a newborn (or newly adopted child), beyond that time covered by disability, it must do the same for men. Not to pat myself on the back, but looks like I was onto something, eh?
As is so often the case, what's good for one class of individuals may just turn out to be good for everyone. Once men started demanding -- or better yet, just taking -- paternity leave, it created a much needed perspective shift. This shift -- an understanding that leave is about more than recovering from medical trauma (what a depressing way to think of childbirth, anyway!) is bound to be good for others: For women, who often want and need much more than the six weeks disability pay generally covers. For adopting parents of both sexes. For gay parents. For single parents who may well need, in the most practical of terms, more time. For the children, themselves, who I believe have a birthright to have strong relationships with as many parents as they are lucky enough to have. (One of the important things about paternity leave, as recent studies have shown, is it creates a lasting nurturing habit in dads. It's also been linked, by the way, to better child outcomes ranging from better school performance to fewer injuries to higher IQ scores!)
Making it just a little more possible for dads to take paternity leave (and thus free up women to return to work) is also good for women, in general; countries in which women are encouraged to drop out of the labor force for especially long maternity leaves have found that the policy has a negative effect on both women's advancement and pay equity. It's also good for the economy -- according to the World Economic Forum, countries with the strongest economies are those that are committed to keeping mothers in the workforce. (See Liza Mundy's excellent Atlantic article from last December for more on the far-reaching benefits of paternity leave.)
However, for those who believe that parental leave, for every sex, is good for everyone, it's not yet time to break out the champagne. No one is saying employers have to provide anyone with paid leave. Not even women -- if a company doesn't provide disability pay to anyone, it doesn't have to provide it to pregnant women. Or that they have to provide unpaid leave, for that matter. If a company doesn't have a policy on the books for women, it doesn't have to have one for men. And while some employees of both sexes are eligible for 12 weeks unpaid leave under FMLA, many are not -- for example if they work for a company of fewer than 50 employees, are recently hired, work part-time or are among the growing legions of self-employed. The truth is, compared to nearly all the rest of the developed world, the U.S. continues to operate in a kind of leave-policy dark age.
The new guidelines are a glimmer. A sliver of light in the dark. And I am especially pleased to see them because they are one more toothpick in the scaffold supporting a concept I can't believe isn't universally embraced: men and women were created equal and deserve to be treated as such.
Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who works with companies to put together the best possible "great place to work" competition entries and creates compelling, easy-to-read benefits, HR, diversity and general-topic employee communications. Find her and follow her blog at www.robinhardman.com.
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