Maternity leaves and women’s careers
When Mark Zuckerberg went on paternity leave for two months in 2015, he was widely lauded for reducing the stigma for fathers taking paternity leave. I don’t want to discount the weight of decision-making that fathers also need to undertake after childbirth, but it’s worth saying that women are not generally lauded for taking an extended maternity leave.
The global trend runs toward longer paid parental leaves, reflected locally by the recent ratification of the expanded maternity leave (EML) bill by the Senate and the House of Representatives. The measure will increase paid maternity leave from 60 to 105 days — a huge step for women, and in keeping with the International Labour Organization’s standards on Maternity Protection. However, it’s not without its critics. Sergio Ortiz-Luis, acting president of the Employers Confederation of the Philippines, recently said that employers may choose to hire men rather than women if the EML is enacted: “At the end of the day they didn’t think it through. Sino magha-hire sa mga babae?”
This outdated reasoning notwithstanding, the comments have their basis in fact. Women can’t seem to win either way: They can take full advantage of maternity leave, since longer leaves are associated with lower infant mortality and less maternal stress, but they also risk being perceived as less committed to their careers, and of being “forgotten” by the workplace, missing opportunities to further their careers. There is plenty of evidence across different professions that when women take longer leaves, chances of promotion, pay raises or appointment into leadership positions are significantly lower, and the risk of being fired higher.
On the other hand, mothers can return to work extra early — as Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, has done twice, first by taking two weeks, then less than one month, of maternity leave for two pregnancies — and be criticized for being bad parents, while missing out on much-needed recovery time at home.
The EML is definitely a step forward, ensuring that women who need to take extended leaves have the option to do so. But can we do more to ensure that the EML does not hurt women’s careers as much as Ortiz-Luis supposes? It’s clear that offering an extended leave is not enough: a survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers has found that 37 percent of women don’t take advantage of their full available maternity leave because of the very real fear of hurting their careers.
One possible solution is “keep in touch” programs, which allow parents to keep abreast of work while on leave. Researchers have found that female applicants were perceived as more committed and more “hireable” when keep-in-touch programs were used, compared to when they weren’t. These arrangements serve to reduce bias from colleagues and employers, and keep working parents engaged and visible.
The strategy is not ideal, and the need for its existence still underlines a painfully obvious double standard. But women who have taken advantage of such programs may suffer less upon their return to work, with some women even reporting that they were promoted while on paid leave. In place of keep-in-touch programs, some may offer phased returns, with “check-in” days while on leave, and the number of work days in a week gradually increased.
The Harvard Business Review also recently suggested that mandating paternity leaves—encouraging men to take time off work — can reduce the amount of time that women are absent from the workplace, or allow them to take leave in parts. Support for paternal leave may also allow women partners the time needed to take advantage of keep-in-touch programs, and go some way toward normalizing the idea that both men and women should take the responsibility of leaving work temporarily to care for children.
In the end, while it is hoped that the President signs the EML into law, it’s supportive workplaces that can make all the difference in maximizing their women employees’ sense of capabilities and fulfillment. Here’s hoping that most employers don’t share the opinions of the Employers’ Confederation of the Philippines or its acting president.
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