Parental Leave and Workplace Retention: Why Should We All Care?
By: Vivian Chung, SWE Advocacy Chair
Upon reflecting on my experience at the annual Biomedical Engineering Society’s industry event, two conversations occupied my mind: a conversation I had with a middle aged man and a conversation I had with a middle aged female. In my conversation with the middle aged man, he talked about how he has worked in start-ups his entire career, and how he has been fortunate enough to jump from start-up and start-up to pursue his passions and values. The conversation with the middle aged woman wasn’t too different. She spoke about her experience working for a smaller company and then making the decision to move to a bigger company to follow her career goals. Eventually, the conversation shifted to talking about how during the pandemic, she and her husband had to juggle working from home and taking care of two young kids. She even spoke about how something she considered in her career was how bigger companies are more likely to provide things like good health insurance, job security, and parental leave. While she was saying this generally, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a glaring reality I would have to face in the coming years: that as a female, my decision to work at a start-up or a bigger, more well established company is complicated by factors like parental leave that are out of my control.
Now, I can not speak for these industry professionals and their decision to work at a start-up and bigger company. However, I can say that females who want to have kids have to consider how children affect their careers. While anyone has to consider job security, income, and health insurance when planning to have a kid, females, especially females of color, are much more affected by their decision to have kids. In fact, according to the Marshall Plan for Moms Initiative, 2,300,000 women left the workplace in the past year and women of color are two times more likely than a white woman to be affected by the lack of parental leave. Oftentimes, even if a company provides parental leave, women are not comfortable taking their parental leave out of fear that when they come back they will be behind/ someone has taken their place in the company. Women fear that they will never be “good enough” or as good as they were in their field after taking parental leave. Moreover, despite being a more developed country, the United States does not require private companies to provide parental leave, forcing women to choose between going after their career goals and having a family.
The lack of or sub-par parental leave does not just negatively affect women, but companies too. Companies that do provide good parental leave are found to be more productive. Many workers look for good parental leave which makes companies that do provide parental leave desirable. Also, with good parental leave that supports parents, companies are able to retain their employees which means that companies do not have to constantly train new employees which can be costly.
I would also like to acknowledge that parental leave is heavily framed as a “female-only” problem. When companies only provide women with the option of parental leave, the company reinforces the stereotype that women are meant to be the sole caretaker of their children and that men are the sole breadwinners. This amplifies the difficulty women face when deciding to start a family because not only do they have to think about caring for their child but the aftermath of taking parental leave. Unlike a person without children who can jump more easily from job to job following companies that align with their values and career goals, women have to think more about following a big company, where they have good parental leave but less mobility in their career. Therefore, not only should all companies provide quality parental leave, but universal parental leave. This would give all parents the ability to take care of and spend quality time with their child, while alleviating the pressure on women to go back to work hitting the ground running because going back to work after having a child would be something all parents would face. The burden of raising a family and the effects of it on one’s career should not be solely on a woman, and companies, and society in general, need to understand that.