The Truth Behind Family Friendly Work Policies

Ask anyone how to improve gender equity in the workplace, and the answers almost always revolve around helping women balance work and family life.

Working Mother magazine, which annually ranks the best companies for women, builds its methodology on this premise, rewarding organizations for generous maternity leave and flexible work policies. But what if those types of policies aren’t helping women at all but instead holding them back?

A recent piece in The New York Times posits just this. Writer Claire Cain Miller argues that family friendly policies backfire: “They can end up discouraging employers from hiring women in the first place, because they fear women will leave for long periods or use expensive benefits,” she writes.

And there’s plenty of global evidence to support this claim. In Germany, where mothers are offered three years of maternity leave, just 14 percent of senior management positions are held by women, according to a survey by tax advisory firm Grant Thornton. In Spain, economist Daniel Fernandez-Kranz found that a law requiring firms to allow women with young children to work fewer hours has led to lower employment and lower wages of women of childbearing age, even when they themselves are childless.  

“Some of these laws place all the burden of the cost of adjustment to firms and hence employers are more reluctant to hire women, fearing that they may eventually use the leeway granted by these laws,” said Fernandez-Kranz, an associate professor at IE Business School.

But Sarah Jane Glynn, director of women’s economic policy at the Center for American Progress, said it is important to keep in mind the intentions of family friendly policies before marking them as a failure. She cites the Czech Republic, which offers a multiyear maternity leave, as one example where low women’s labor force participation rates are seen as a negative outcome.

“In some instances, extremely long maternity leave spanning several years has decreased women’s labor force participation, which makes sense because women are taking leisurely extended spells out of the workforce when they have a kid and because they have access to this paid leave,” Glynn said. “Some folks look at that and say, ‘Oh, that’s a negative consequence; this family-friendly policy is backfiring because women aren’t working.’ But the real reason that that policy was implemented was not to help women retain a tie to the workplace — it was to help boost the birth rate. And on that measure, they’ve actually been very, very successful.”

In the U.S., Glynn said, existing maternity leave policies offered by state and federal government were put in place to boost gender equity, and therefore were structured so as to help the workforce retain female employees, rather than push them away. In California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, the only states to currently offer paid-leave programs, Glynn said women are more likely to return to work and return to the same job after having a baby.

“These paid leave programs in the U.S., because they’re not spanning several years, they’re looking at most a couple of months off between pregnancy leave and new baby leave,” Glynn said. “That’s actually helping women retain their ties to the labor force.”

Additionally, she said that existing U.S. family leave policies are written as gender neutral, so that men and women both have access to time off for the purposes of family care. The Family and Medical Leave Act, for example, guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave to qualifying U.S. employees, regardless of their gender, and Glynn said that under the FMLA, men and women take leave at an equal rate. This gender neutrality is a key element of a successful family leave policy, Fernandez-Kranz said.

 “Policies should be gender neutral, for example inducing both fathers and mothers to take advantage of them,” he said. “The problem starts when firms see that only women use the rights provided by these laws, not men.”

Fernandez-Kranz also recommended that governments enforce rational work schedules that support work-family balance, as well as instituting policies that avoid placing the entire burden on firms.

“A good work-family balance is a need to society and the entire society benefits, therefore the entire society should pay for it, not only firms,” Fernandez-Kranz said, suggesting subsidies as one way to redistribute the costs of paid leave.

Glynn said she believes that the U.S. could successfully implement a paid-leave program, similar to the social insurance models in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, so long as it is gender neutral and covers all types of family care in addition to parental leave.

“Under that scenario, it doesn’t become something that’s about one gender or another,” Glynn said. “It becomes something that is a benefit for all workers.”