When I told my employers that I was pregnant and planned to take maternity leave, no one asked who would be taking care of the baby.
Derek Rotondo, a fraud investigator with JPMorgan Chase in Ohio, was not so lucky. In June 2017, he wanted to use the 16-weeks paid leave JPMorgan provided for looking after a new baby. But the human resources department told him birth mothers were considered “the primary caregivers” and he wasn’t eligible unless he could prove his partner had gone back to work or was incapacitated.
So he filed a class-action lawsuit. The bank backed down on his personal leave, and last week it agreed to pay a record $5m group settlement. “A lot of parental leave policies feed into the stereotype that women should stay out for a long time and men should get back to work,” says Peter Romer-Friedman, who helped bring the case. “These policies aren’t just wrong, but also illegal.”
JPMorgan has since expanded non-primary caregiver leave from two to six weeks. “We’re always exploring ways to provide benefit programmes and policies that support the needs of our employees and their families,” a spokesman said.
Paternity leave has benefits for individual families, companies and society at large. Not only are fathers who take it more involved with their children, but paid paternal leave is associated with higher female employment, improved retention, lower gender pay gaps and less gender stereotyping at work. Several Nordic countries and Germany have enacted laws that provide extra paid leave when both partners take a turn at home. “We need to even the playing field at home for women to have an equal opportunity at work,” explains Galen Sherwin, of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Now some big companies are starting to see equal leave as a recruitment and retention tool. Bank of America, Investec, Diageo and Aviva offer at least four months of fully paid leave to both parents. “True gender equality . . . requires fundamental changes to a broad range of working practices,” drinks group Diageo said as it announced the change in April.
But there are big barriers to mass social change. Most parental leave is poorly paid and only the biggest businesses provide more than the minimum stipend. As a result, few men use it. Just 9,200 UK residents took shared parental leave in the 12 months to March 2018, or 2 per cent of those eligible.
Some advocates and analysts also worry that the drive for equality could end up backfiring. They point out that birth mothers face physical challenges that other parents do not and worry that some employers might reduce leave for women rather than increase it for men.
This issue came to a head in the UK when two fathers challenged the practice of providing both maternity leave and “shared parental leave” available to both parents. Madasar Ali and Anthony Hextall argued that it was discriminatory for their employers to pay full-salary maternity leave to mothers but only the legal minimum payment to fathers.
The Court of Appeal last week ruled against both men, finding that UK law allows employers to make exceptions for women who are pregnant, have recently given birth or are breastfeeding. Jane van Zyl, of the advocacy group Working Families, praised that decision for recognising “the distinct disadvantage that women face in the workplace having experienced pregnancy and childbirth”.
Until both sexes are given — and take — substantial parental leave, women will face discrimination from employers who see child rearing as a burden. And men will see their life choices unfairly narrowed. Employers such as Aviva and Diageo should be celebrated, but smaller companies will struggle to match them. It is time for governments to ensure that social insurance funds are adequate to cover a fairer system and provide monetary incentives for all parents to stay at home for a time.
Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who studies economic gender gaps, puts the case simply: “The world would be a better place if there were more Derek Rotondos.”
Get alerts on Childcare when a new story is published