The New Rules of Work-Family Integration

Paid maternity leave isn’t enough. If you want to compete globally, you need to think bigger, broader, and better.

By Maura Mills, Ph.D.

I want to start by sharing a secret: Employed new mothers in the United States aren’t always crying.

You’d think they were given the cultural script that unfailingly positions them in the front seat of the car, dabbing their makeup after having dropped off their three-month-old babies at day care for the first time. Has this ever happened? Inevitably. Is it the norm? Of course not.

As U.S. companies increasingly recognize the importance of work-family integration, the question inevitably becomes: What does this mean for high-potential female talent, who are often pulled in both directions?

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There are no easy answers, but there is lots of scrutiny and even outrage. A few years ago, Marissa Mayer, at the time the CEO of Yahoo, was widely criticized for pulling back on flexible schedules at the company. After that scandal, she stirred up a similar storm when she returned to work shortly following the birth of twins. The backlash was in large part due to Mayer’s gender and the implication that, as a woman, she should “know better.” However, Mayer’s policy changes and choices were not as atypical as the media made them out to be.

Indeed, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t legally require companies to offer paid maternity leave, though several states have passed their own paid-leave laws and at least a dozen others have legislation in the works. But smart organizations aren’t waiting. They’re increasingly offering paid leave on their own, along with other friendly-friendly policies that go well beyond the 12 weeks of unpaid leave mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Netflix is a trailblazer in this space, offering unlimited paid leave for new mothers and fathers for up to a year. Other companies, like Google and Apple, ofer 12 to 18 weeks.

What do these companies get that others are missing? Family-friendly policies are good for business. Research has found that they increase job satisfaction, performance, engagement, and commitment among employees. They also give you a competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining top talent both at home and abroad.

Creating a modern, family-friendly workplace isn’t as simple as adding paid leave to your list of benefits. It requires a mindset and culture shift. To do that, you need to obey four key rules.

Rule #1: Understand Who’s in the Driver Seat

Hint: Not you. The best people go to the best places. Strong candidates will self-select out of non-family-friendly organizations at the recruitment stage if the company’s policies do not meet their needs. Likewise, high-potential employees will leave if the benefits no longer align with the needs of their personal lives. Considering the substantial expense of turnover, drawing a hard line could be costly.

In today’s increasingly international workforce, it’s important to consider the expectations of global talent. Paid leaves in other nations last up to a year, so U.S. companies will continue to fall short in recruiting global talent until they adapt their leave policies to be more consistent with global norms.

However, paid leaves are just the beginning. Global talent increasingly expects companies to facilitate creative work-family management via schedule flexibility (compressed work weeks, flextime, telework) and childcare support (on-site childcare facilities, day care subsidies, childcare during required work travel) as well.

And don’t overlook something as simple as a lactation room. Although a seemingly small benefit, this often means the difference between new mothers feeding their babies breast milk versus formula. Correspondingly, it can also mean the difference between new mothers returning to (and remaining in) the workforce or not. Plus, because breastfeeding offers a variety of health benefits for babies (antibodies to stave off illnesses, reduced risk of asthma and allergies) and mothers (decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers) alike, supporting the practice may help lower your healthcare costs down the road.

Rule #2: Stop Using the Word “Maternity”

Your family-friendly benefits should start with this core belief: they exist for and benefit all. Mothers, fathers, and yes, even those without kids.

To some extent, female-focused policies are justifiable, given the physical challenges presented by pregnancy and childbirth. But as any mother can tell you, childbirth may be the end of something hard—pregnancy—but it’s also the beginning of something even more difficult: parenting. That should not be a woman’s responsibility alone, and differential policies imply that it is.

Men have more family responsibilities than ever. Moreover, they frequently serve as a new mother’s only source of support after the birth of a child, so their availability is often essential. And yet, men are feeling heightened work-family conflict because of insufficient corporate support and gender-stereotypic organizational cultures. 

In the same way, when maternity leave—while a good start—is instituted in place of gender-equitable leaves, it can have the unintended side effect of stalling women’s careers because it exclusively takes them out of the office.

So forget the traditional distinction between maternal and paternal leave, and frame the benefit as parental or—better yet—family leave.

Rule #3: Quit Making Employees Feel Guilty for Taking Leave

Even when benefits like paid leave and fex time exist, employees don’t always feel comfortable using them. There can be a stigma attached—employees fear that they won’t be seen as committed to their jobs or perceived as team players, and thereby risk compromising their chances for promotion down the road.

For men, this stigma arises from breaking traditional gender norms, whereas women worry about the opposite: that they’re conforming to the stereotypical caretaker profile, which is a “risk” to employers because they’re seen as less engaged. Either way, it’s ultimately a culture problem, so make sure that your leaders are committed to espousing the value of family-friendly benefits, as well as to facilitating employees’ usage of them.

When companies offer family-friendly benefits equally to women and men alike—and are using them to attract, retain, and sustain top talent—stigma may be less of a problem. In other words, smart companies go all-in with family-friendly benefits.

Rule #4: Don’t Ignore Childless Employees

Detractors of family-friendly policies often claim that such initiatives favor parent-employees, neglecting single and childless workers. However, my research suggests the opposite: Such benefits can improve the commitment and performance of employees without kids, too. This is because family-supportive initiatives and supervisors play a crucial role in enhancing not only the employee experience, but also the extent to which those employees are positively contributing to their organizations.

Companies can take this to mean that when they allow their managers the flexibility to help employees balance work and family demands, they aren’t setting a precedent of preference for parentemployees, but rather are facilitating a resource that is beneficial to all.

It is important to emphasize, however, that this is most likely the case when policies go beyond childcare and are equally applied to spousal care, elder care, and other such nonwork responsibilities shouldered by employees, regardless of their gender and their marital and parental statuses.

In other words, when in doubt, be inclusive. Just as it takes a village to raise a kid, the optimal workforce is made up of both male and female talent, young and old, at a variety of life stages. When organizations enact policies that support all employees in their quest for balance, everyone benefits. Acceptance of this 21st century reality will help you raise a happy, healthy, modern workplace.

Maura Mills, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of management at the University of Alabama. Her research focuses on the intersection of work and nonwork domains, gender in the workplace, and employee attitudes and well-being.