By Jacquelyn Harms
Last month, Netflix announced a a new paid family leave plan that would allow new parents to take off as much paid time as they would like in the first year of a new birth or adoption. Giving generous paid family leave is no new trend in Silicon Valley. Google gives 18 weeks while Twitter offers 20. Nonetheless, Netflix is the first to offer unlimited paid leave. The normal standard for paid family leave is a far cry from what Netflix is offering. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FLMA), passed in 1993, requires businesses to provide 12 weeks of unpaid family leave. Besides family leave being unpaid, there are several other issues with the act, including the fact that 40 percent of Americans are not covered by it. Furthermore, same-sex partners are not considered eligible, nor are employees who work under 25 hours a week.
This leads to an intense pressure as many who work at firms that are not covered by the FMLA feel as if they have no option. Losing 12 weeks of pay is simply not an option for those on a tight budget, especially since having a child is expensive. Since many know that they cannot afford to lose this much of their salary, they either decide not to have a family or to wait until they are more financially stable.
The problem with waiting to be more financially stable to have a child is that sometimes waiting doesn’t go as planned. It is no secret that it is harder to have a child later on in life, as fertility in women decreases with age. The best times to have a child are typically when parents are working entry-level jobs and not making a large salary yet.
Even though many women are becoming the co-breadwinners in the household, the traditionally patriarchal American workplace has issued an unspoken rule: it is women who should quit their careers to raise a family. A New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation study recently polled non-working adults from ages 25-54 in the United States about why they chose to leave their careers. An astonishing 61 percent of women said that they weren’t working because of family responsibilities, compared to 37 percent of men giving this same response. This social convention can be drawn back to the 1960’s, when a woman staying home to take care of the kids was a hallmark of the nuclear family. That mentality seems to have bled into workplace standards today. In fact, 43 percent of women with children leave their jobs to stay at home.
Many women feel they have been “mommy-tracked,” or given easier tasks at work out of fear that they can’t handle a heavy load anymore, after having a child. One woman that was the subject of a recent academic study stated that she “lost the vast majority of interesting responsibilities” after coming back from her maternity leave. As a result, “Approximately 90 percent of women in our sample expressed a moderate to high degree of ambivalence about the decision to quit their jobs, and for many the decision was protracted and agonizing.”
Netflix’s plan goes a long way in correcting this trend. Unlimited paid family leave promotes the importance of family and nurtures the ability to have children for people who desire to do so, and offering this plan for both men and women can help fight the antiquated expectation that women should be the ones who must sacrifice their careers for their families.
This program also recognizes the fact that employees’ time off can benefit the company as a whole. As Netflix’s Chief Talent Officer Tawni Cranz stated in the company’s press release, “Experience shows people perform better at work when they’re not worrying about home.” By implementing this policy, Netflix is recognizing that a healthy lifestyle includes a balance of work and family and that a happy workforce is a productive workforce.
The new policy’s true test will be how Netflix goes about implementing it. It’s absolutely essential that Netflix offer this in a way that does not unintentionally create a “mommy-track” work environment. If only women take this time off, then men will continue to dominate the workplace and gain more experience than their female counterparts. This in turn could lead to raises and promotions being more available to men. A way that Netflix could go about creating this environment is by simply asking superiors to encourage men to take this time off. This could create a tidal wave effect. The more men take time off, the more it will become a culturally accepted norm in the workplace. While Netflix has most certainly created a policy that gives a great start for equitable family leave, the world has yet to see if they can create the perfect environment.
The United States is one of the only developed countries in the world that does not have a federally required paid family leave program. In a world that has moved farther and farther away from the traditional nuclear family, this is exactly what firms need to do in order to evolve. Many European businesses have already implemented paid family leave policies and have enjoyed many economic benefits, including higher employment-to-population ratios and decreased unemployment. Firms should feel an obligation to raise the next generations in the best way possible as this fosters a healthy work environment that has evolved with the changing aspects of home life in the United States.
Having a child is a major milestone, but it is difficult and timely. New parents should be able devote time to their children to raise them in the fashion they would like. Netflix is paving the way for this, and we can only hope that other businesses will choose to follow.