Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent two-month paternity leave announcement shines a spotlight on the need for better parental leave policies. And yet, while this news may be a step in the right direction, it’s clear that we still has a long way to go when it comes to addressing work-life balance and gender equity issues, particularly in the tech industry.
Zuckerberg’s announcement comes at a time when there has been a sharp focus on the glaring gender imbalance in the technology industry, and the urgent need to encourage more women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
And with good reason. Women made up just 12 percent of working engineers and just 26 percent of computing professionals in 2013, according to a recent study by the American Association of University Women. Incredibly, that figure is substantially smaller than it was 25 years ago, and remains roughly the same percentage that it was in 1960. What’s more, women in science, engineering, and technology jobs are 45 percent more likely than men to leave the industry within a year, according to a recent report from the Center for Talent Innovation.
By 2020, jobs in computer science - a key driver of global growth - are projected to grow two to three times faster than other sectors. Activating a talent pool that makes up 50.8% of the US population is an essential part of meeting this demand. Thanks to conversations inspired by leaders like Sheryl Sandberg, there seems now to be general agreement that companies, employees, and the entire tech sector stand to benefit from a more gender-balanced workplace. Many policymakers and industry leaders now believe no less than the future of American innovation, competitiveness, and national security depends on our ability to cultivate and prepare women for future careers in the tech sphere. Success here depends on developing family-friendly workplace culture for both women and men.
As a longtime Silicon Valley entrepreneur and CEO who has spent many years employed in tech workplaces that are predominantly male, I’ve seen this exodus of women firsthand, and it’s become apparent to me that many women leave due to a lack of sufficient maternity leave and misaligned expectations for re-entry. As a country and a culture, we do a terrible job of supporting new parents.
In the U.S., workplace policies and attitudes toward maternity leave are some of the most provincial among developed nations. Only 11 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Family and Medical Leave Act gives workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but only about half of employees are eligible, (Watch a fantastic TEDx talk about paid leave by Jessica Shortall here.)
As such, overall rates of employment for women have declined in the United States, falling to 69 percent from a peak of 74 percent in 1999. In the meantime, rates of female employment in other countries, like Great Britain, have been rising. Like many European nations, Great Britain, offers women 12 months of maternity leave, a lot of it paid, along with other policies designed to entice women to stay in the workforce. The U.S. is dead last among developed countries, in fact, our policies are on par with those of Swaziland, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea.
While America has lagged, there is evidence that the tide may be slowly turning.
policies extend leave, they apply at least in part to both mothers and fathers, making leave a part of the employee life-cycle rather than a special circumstance to be tolerated for new mothers.
Regardless of the quality and quantity of benefits offered, the reality - especially for women - is that reentering the workplace after leave is difficult. It’s a vulnerable time for all new parents. Your identity as a human is dramatically altered. Technologies may have evolved and shifted, and new features added to your product, projects were started or completed, and the office marched on while you were gone. Thousands of emails went flying through your inbox. People may assume you’re not as mentally sharp or available to focus on work once you return. And, if you’re a mom, trying to keep up your milk supply at the office is a job in and of itself.
Evolving leave policies, with extended and paid time, is a wonderful first step for those few lucky enough to work at those companies. However, the majority of American workers don’t benefit from these modern approaches to leave, despitethe science overwhelmingly supporting the career and company benefits of paid maternity leave for women. Recent studies show that not only does paid leave raise the probability that mothers return to employment later, it results in more hours worked and higher wages for women once they return.
Reversing the downward trajectory of women in the U.S. tech sector isn’t just about steering more girls toward STEM education at an early age. It’s about retaining, supporting, and engaging women in the workplace throughout all stages of their lives and careers. We cannot begin to address the gender imbalance in the U.S. tech sector, and remain competitive as a driving force in the global economy for decades to come, unless significant cultural and institutional changes are made, especially around the birth of a baby.
Encouraging work-life balance and flexible schedules, along with paid parental leave should be a first step and frankly, a no-brainer. Creating an atmosphere where taking this paid leave is the norm for both women and men, and where employees re-entering the workforce are supported can be our next step.
It’s not that hard. Like anything else, it just requires a little nurturing.
Ann Crady Weiss is the CEO and Co-founder of Hatch Baby, a smart parenting device tech company.
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