When advocating for paid family leave, Shama Skinner points to her own pregnancies as praxis.
"There's a term that is used for the first three months of the baby's life — they call it the fourth trimester. I see why they do, because there's still such a close connection between the mother and baby during that time," she told HR Dive. "I know it's not like this for everybody, but my personal experience was that I really needed to be at home and dedicated to my baby."
As it stands now, the U.S. government’s only federal leave offering is the Family and Medical Leave Act. This law provides basic job security to workers who take 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Skinner, the COO and interim CEO of Thinx, a menstrual product company, had a comprehensive benefit package: Her company offers 16 weeks of paid family leave, available to birthing and non-birthing parents as well as adoptive ones.
"For those three months, you're not sleeping the night. If you have to work the entire day and then essentially work at night, you're not bringing your best self to work or to home. And that is just not productive for anybody," Skinner said. "It's not good for your family and it's not good for the workforce either."
It’s why she’s advocating for more resources at the federal level. Joined by Patagonia's Jenna Johnson, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, Melinda French Gates and other business leaders, Skinner called on Congress to make paid family and medical leave programs available to all in the U.S. The video, released July 22, was put together by the National Partnership for Women and Families.
"We're pushing this business support because when companies have really looked at paid leave, they understand that it is about gender equity. It's about keeping women in the workforce," said Lelaine Bigelow, NPWF’s interim VP of congressional relations and economic justice.
Gender roles are booting women from work
During the past 18 months, women have dropped out of the workforce in droves. For context, this past February, the women’s labor force participation rate (57%) was already the lowest it had been since 1988, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
Experts on economics and caregiving say antiquated views of gender and child care are to blame. "The numbers completely bear it out over the past year. [It comes from] ignoring ‘women's work’ like unpaid care for kids and older adults," Bigelow said. "Women suffer more than men from the lack of paid leave, because in the U.S., women still take on the majority of care responsibilities. They are called to care because they likely make less than men due to the wage gap."
McKinsey’s 2020 Women in the Workplace report confirmed that child care-related attrition is an issue. In the survey, 10% of men without children and 12% of women without children said they were considering downshifting their careers amid the pandemic. Compare that to 11% of fathers and 15% of mothers surveyed who said they were considering a step back.
Ten percent of childless men and women, respectively, said they were interested in leaving their job altogether. Meanwhile, 11% of fathers and 18% of mothers said they had their sights on quitting. The rate jumps for fathers (13%) and mothers (23%) with children under 10.
Skinner noted how child care options are slim for new parents, especially because public school education starts around five years old. That’s why, she explained, Thinx offers an $800 monthly child care stipend to its employees. Of course, most parents are not so lucky: In a July 2021 survey by OnePoll and SitterCity, 45% of respondents said they don’t even know where to look when planning child care.
So the number of parents who are looking to jump ship to care for their kids, as seen in the McKinsey data, should come as no surprise.
Private employers could fill in federal gaps
The U.S. has long solidified its reputation as a paid leave straggler. "I know that people don't like to make the comparison to Europe, but I think it's an important comparison to make. They have been doing this for years," Skinner said.
"Many of the industrialized countries have established national paid leave programs," she continued. "It's pretty astonishing that the U.S. does not have anything — let alone, you know, something that's comparable to what's offered in other industrialized nations."
Canada, Mexico, most South American countries, a fair amount of African countries and many Asian countries have paid federal plans as well, according to a report by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization.
Right now, the American Families Plan is advocates’ hope for getting the U.S. up to speed. In short, this legislation would ensure "high-quality care" for kids under five would be accessible for all. Along with a permanent child care tax credit, it would also "provide comprehensive paid family and medical leave" so workers can take time off for a new child, a "seriously ill loved one" or their own serious illness.
From a policy perspective, Bigelow said her ideal plan would be universal access to 12 weeks of paid leave. "That means gig workers, domestic workers, farm workers — everyone gets access to paid leave," she explained. Along with job security, "a comprehensive range of purposes" should be folded into the policy, she said.
Ultimately, paid leave inspires retention
Along with boosted morale and increased productivity, reduced company spend is a perk of retention. Less turnover means less capital spent on recruitment, hiring and training, Skinner said. In some ways, this rationale extends to her own company.
"We are a majority female workforce. At the leadership level, we do have young kids. So this is an important issue for us. We have a tremendous group of talented people, and we want to retain all of them. Ultimately that's what it comes down to," Skinner said.
The art of keeping talent is top of mind across companies. In June 2021, research firm West Monroe Partners surveyed 150 executives (each heading companies that rake in $250 million or more in revenue). When asked about the top threat to their business in Q3, 49% of respondents said hiring and retention. Notably, 11% of respondents said their top hiring challenge was keeping up with the rate of turnover and attrition.
Sparking more candid conversations about wages, benefits and "the labor shortage," COVID-19 has shifted the importance of retention into sharp focus. "We all know we've seen those articles about ‘the great resignation,’" Bigelow said. "Thinking for myself, if I was looking for a new job… Wouldn’t I want to work at a place where I knew if a family crisis or COVID-19 happened, I could deal with it and not have to worry about work?"