Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Parental leave policies 2.0

The US remains the only developed country that has no national policy or law providing for paid parental leave. As a result, a plethora of different policies are utilized by employers and organizations. Several years ago the CSWA began a useful list of parental leave policies at astronomical institutions. Readers unfamiliar with this will find it interesting to compare their institution with others.

The vast array of different policies offers an opportunity to assess the effectiveness of different leave policies. Which policies promote employee well being and success? Which are the best for recruiting, retaining, and advancement of all workers? Which policies do employees most like? Do policies exacerbate or ameliorate inequality?

These questions are investigated by social scientists. Recently I've been reading some of the literature, motivated by two considerations.

The first is the periodic assessment of my own university's policies for paid parental leave and, for faculty, tenure clock extensions. The policies were enacted about 15 years ago in order to remove barriers to the success of women faculty, and were explicitly gendered. For example, we grant one-year tenure clock extensions automatically to birth mothers but others must request the extension. Is this fair? Is it effective? It is certainly effective for many individuals, but is it the most effective for everyone?

The second factor is an important new law in Massachusetts, a significant revision of the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act. The new parental leave law enhances the US Family Medical and Leave Act by requiring 8 weeks of parental leave for all employees, regardless of gender, for the adoption or birth of a child. Crucially, the law states that an "employee on parental leave for the adoption of a child shall be entitled to the same benefits offered by an employee on parental leave for the birth of a child." It has been described by some as a paternity leave law.

Gender dynamics is no longer binary. Gender-neutral parental leave laws and employer policies are important for protecting the rights and supporting the success of LGBT parents including those who adopt. Considerations of LGBT equality were not part of the calculus when our policies were implemented more than 15 years ago, but they are important now.

Sociologists study leave policies and their effect on organizations. Sara Mitchell has compiled a listing of faculty parental leave policies. Erin Cech and Mary Blair-Loy have studied "flexibility stigma" among academic scientists and engineers, which they define as the devaluation of workers who seek or are presumed to need flexible work arrangements.They note that the stigma applies to men and women, and that all suffer the consequences. Avoidance of this stigma is one of the reasons many universities have adopted gender-neutral parental leave laws. On the other hand, some have argued that policies favoring women are necessary because men will use parental leave to further their research careers instead of for childcare. Researchers Jennifer Lundquist, Joya Misra and KerryAnn O'Meara find otherwise. They provide excellent guidance in a recent article in Inside Higher Ed and emphasize the need to destigmatize leave-taking as mommy's work. They provide excellent summary advice for any, like me, who are looking at their university parental leave policies:

"Cultural change recognizing the need for ... work-family balance policies is crucial. Faculty members should be made aware of and encouraged to use available work-life policies in order to promote a culture of use. Strong support from the administration in favor of balanced lives has important multiplying effects on campuses. Departmental chairs can set cultural standards by holding important meetings during school hours and scheduling teaching slots during school hours for parents of children. Part of changing the culture is also publicizing best practices. Administrators should publicly recognize departments with a good track record of benefit usage and supports." -- Lundquist, Misra and O'Meara.

Returning to the questions I posed at the outset, we have few answers. We know that stigmatization is associated with social class and identity, and that parental leave policies reduce stress of those using the policies, at least the stress around parenting. (Eldercare and other family and medical needs also cause stress and loss of productivity, and are not always given as much attention as childbirth and childcare.) I have not seen a study showing the effectiveness of leave policies in terms of recruitment, retention and advancement of employees. Perhaps an informed reader will help!

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