The landscape of parental leave policies has changed over the years, not only influenced by geographic differences, but also due to the changing structure of a modern family. Although some progress has been made, in high-pressure industries the official policy often does not match the reality. This creates a talent drain for these organizations - the pressures and challenges are different for the Millennial parent and they are having to leave their jobs because companies are not addressing the real issues.
The United States has one of the lowest statutory allowances for maternity leave in the world amongst the richest countries - at the federal level, this sits at zero. Compared to Estonia, with a potential leave time of up to 80 weeks for new mothers, the disparity is astonishing. In between, Japan offers up to 58 weeks of leave, the UK up to 52 weeks, and Australia with 18 weeks (although with job-protection for anything greater than that).
Legislation also ignores the evolved structure of the modern definition of a ‘family’, as well as the economic impact. It presumes women will stay at home, there is one source of income, and there are two parents. Right now, it is largely down to organizations to be progressive and offer policy that reflects modern society.
Millennials struggle to save, get on the property ladder and have a financial cushion for any issues, whilst also having a time limit pushing against them to start a family. While some companies are starting to offer egg freezing as a perk, the majority of young families struggle to find a balance between work and family life. Global organizations have an opportunity to develop policy that fits a global workforce, but that is not currently the norm. Companies are giving the bare minimum, and internal policy is not reflecting practice. Millennials are looking elsewhere after they no longer feel supported by their employers’ leave policies and this is a talent drain for these organizations.
Speaking with several new parents, one theme was consistent - young parents recognize that in order to advance their careers after having children, the best and most successful way for them to do this was to leave their current positions.
One of the major factors of this issue is that official policies do not reflect reality. Two attorneys in different Big Law firms shared this experience. Taking full leave allowance was frowned upon and when they returned, they were given the grunt work. Prior to their parental leave, they had been working on significantly more complex and challenging work, and they were left wondering what had changed. “If a Partner was only taking 2.5 weeks of leave, there was no way that I as an Associate could take more, even though my family situation was completely different,” one Big Law attorney said.
In other industries, the situation is similar. A female Sales Manager at a tech company noted “there was a feeling that they didn’t want a female leader who could go out on leave,” and ultimately left after being denied progression opportunities after starting a family. Across industries, the written policy may be progressive, but the mindset is not. One Associate highlighted that the older Partners felt that flexibility and leave could not be achieved when they started their families, so it was bound not to work now. Another, whose industry is largely male-dominated, feels there is a complete lack of empathy and flexibility from their current team to find a solution.
One option could be to allow more flexible working hours - something that the coronavirus pandemic could have a positive impact on, but not every organization is open to this idea. “Being able to work from home one or two days a week would change my and my daughter’s quality of life enormously,” one London-based attorney mentioned. However, her firm does not offer that option and is reluctant to set precedent on policy.
An alternative could be a job-share situation. This is usually when a full-time, one-person role is split equally in time, pay and responsibilities between two people. The practicalities could be initially tricky, especially if the role links to external deadlines (such as with litigators who are often set deadlines by the courts), but it could also provide benefits, particularly around collaboration and creativity within teams. The two parties are more likely to want to make the arrangement work with no cost to the implementing organization. This would give the employees a sense of empowerment for those who do want to work fewer hours but not quit work altogether.
The result of not implementing flexible policy often sees attrition - when forced to choose between work and family, people are largely going to choose family. Millennials also want work and life to mix - balance - into their lifestyle.
The positive is that those that have moved to new, more progressive companies noticed a significant positive difference, especially when remote working was in the fabric of the organization. “The level of ego and intensity is a lot lower,” one Big Law attorney said. “You don’t feel like you have to run away and hide to sort out a personal matter.”
For the company losing these people, it’s truly a great loss - a loss of training investment, strong workers and employee loyalty that often make up the fabric of the company. Lessons from the coronavirus pandemic could shift things, forcing organizations to reflect, develop new policy and be more flexible. However, for several big industries old habits die hard, and there is a risk that without advancement of policy, particularly around parental leave, these issues will magnify further and have a deeper impact on organizational attrition.