The XX Factor

The Nationwide Paid Parental Leave Arms Race Is a Myth

Fathers are often totally left out of parental leave policies.


The fight for paid family leave in the U.S. has intensified in fervor and made a few big gains in the recent years, shifting the public consensus quickly enough and far enough in the right direction to become one of the most successful movements of our time. Paid leave is such a popular concept among voters, Ivanka Trump has made it a pillar of her unsettling campaign to seem like a reasonable, intelligent centrist.

But over the past decade, the proportion of U.S. companies offering fully-paid parental leave has shrunk, and the amount of time they offer their workers has diminished. According to a recent nationally representative survey, among businesses that offer employees any paid leave at all, between 2005 and 2016, the percentage that pays leave at full salary fell from 17 percent to 10 percent. In that same period, the average company-policy maximum leave length dropped nearly an entire week, from 15.2 weeks to 14.5.

The survey, conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Families and Work Institute, covered 920 companies with 50 or more employees each, making it a convincing corrective to the anecdote-driven idea that employers are feverishly competing to offer the best, most generous leave packages. The percentage of companies offering any paid leave at all rose from 46 percent to 58 percent in the last decade, but much of this gain came from companies offering temporary disability insurance, which allows mothers who give birth a few weeks to recover with partial pay. Among businesses offering any paid maternity leave, 78 percent do it through this kind of insurance policy, leaving the majority of parents—adoptive parents, members of same-sex couples, and all fathers—without any coverage.

Recent increases in paid leave offered by a few big U.S. companies, mostly in the tech sector, have made it seem like business leaders were coming around to the idea that better family leave policies could help them attract the best employees—and keep them. A decade ago at Google, the attrition rate for new mothers was double that of the rest of the company’s workforce. After Google upped its maternity leave from three months to five months and paid it at 100 percent salary, the attrition rate dropped 50 percent. People applauded Netflix when, in 2015, it moved to give all employees unlimited time off during the first year after a birth or adoption. Later that year, Spotify changed its policies to allow employees to take up to six months of 100 percent paid leave, either all at once or split among the child’s first three years of life. Starting in January, American Express began offering parents 20 fully paid weeks, up from six weeks for a parent with primary caregiving responsibilities and two weeks for the “secondary” parent. (Mothers who physically give birth have always gotten an extra six to eight weeks on top of that.)

But for every employer that gets a PR boost from a shift toward a fair parental leave policy, there are dozens that offer inadequate paid leave or none at all. A fairly recent report on the leave policies of dozens of the country’s top companies found that many exclude fathers and adoptive parents entirely, and some give as little as five weeks to birth mothers. The so-called “parental leave arms race” of the tech sector hasn’t expanded beyond the industry, wherein a small number of high-profile companies compete for an in-demand pool of potential workers. Outside of tech, the carrot and stick of good publicity and public pressure can only sway decisionmakers so far. As of 2016, according to the survey, only 6 percent of employers with 50 or more employees offered fully paid parental leave. Without hefty tax incentives or penalties, there’s no reason to think the other 94 percent might budge.