Explicit Bias in Paid Parental Benefits
A new survey finds an imbalance in how the genders are treated when it comes to employers' paid parental benefits. Experts suggest ways organizations can work toward a gender-neutral policy.
By Carol Patton
Employers' latest message to workers: Mothers need more bonding time with newborns than fathers.
That seems to be what some companies are telling their employees, according to the Paid Leave in the Workplace Survey, conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management between last November and January.
Based on the responses of 2,665 HR professionals, on average, women were given 41 days of paid maternity leave compared with 22 days of paid paternity leave for men.
The 41 days is in addition to other forms of paid leave, such as vacation or sick time, but may include short-term disability, which could account for the difference, says Evren Esen, director of workforce analytics at SHRM in Alexandria, Va.
According to SHRM, the number of companies offering paid paternity benefits rose from 12 percent in 2014 to 17 percent in 2015 and is now 21 percent, according to the nearly 3,500 HR professionals who responded to the 2016 Employee Benefits -- 20th Anniversary Edition survey.
Approximately three out of five organizations (63 percent) also reported that women had typically taken all of their available paid leave, compared to 39 percent of organizations that reported the same for male employees. Not surprisingly, 20 percent of respondents indicated that their male employees typically took less than 25 percent of the paid leave that was available to them while 2 percent reported employees of either gender who did not take any of their parental leave.
"This reinforces gender roles because it does have an implicit and explicit bias toward women and mothers being more involved in child care," Esen says, adding that the results are also reflective of a changing trend, that paternity leave is gaining employer acceptance.
She says HR professionals need to prepare a business case for a gender-neutral policy. What should it accomplish? What do our employees value? What are our competitors offering? What type of talent do we need to recruit and what are their expectations of paid parental leave?
"Do an environmental scan and get a sense of what's going on out there, what are the trends and what do you as a company want to espouse," says Esen.
Meanwhile, parental leave is mostly offered to white-collar professionals, says Lenny Sanicola, senior practice leader for benefits and total rewards at WorldatWork, a global HR association based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
But times may be changing. He points to Hilton Worldwide. Last January, the hotelier introduced two weeks of fully paid parental leave to its 40,000 salaried and hourly employees.
While a step in the right direction, he says, the discrepancy involving paid leave between new moms and dads isn't surprising and sends a blatantly biased message to workers.
"The time component for bonding should be the same for mothers and fathers," says Sanicola, adding that employers could otherwise open themselves up to lawsuits. As an example, he cites CNN and Turner Broadcasting, which recently settled an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission discrimination charge filed by a CNN employee. At the time, the company's policy offered 10 weeks of paid leave to biological mothers but only two weeks to biological fathers.
He says companies need to re-examine their corporate philosophy and current paid-leave policies. Do they make strategic sense for the business, its goals and workforce demographics?
"Culture change doesn't happen overnight," says Sanicola. "Most companies putting this forward are doing it because of attraction and retention, its competitive advantage."
Under EEOC guidance, paid-leave programs must be gender-neutral with one exception, says Rich Fuerstenberg, senior consultant in the absence, disability and life solutions practice at Mercer in Princeton, N.J. Employers can create a policy stating that employees -- either male or female -- who self-identify as the primary caregiver receive six weeks of paid leave while secondary caregivers are given two weeks of paid leave.
He says shrinking budgets, thin profit margins and the additional cost of replacement workers are among the reasons why men are being shortchanged. After doing the math -- estimating how many employees are expected to give birth, what percentage will take time off and how much time they will need -- some HR professionals, he says, also "get scared" by the big numbers.
Looking ahead, he believes that gender-neutral programs are inevitable.
So far, three states -- California, New Jersey and Rhode Island -- have already passed paid family leave > laws that not only offer equal bonding time for new parents, but also time to care for family members, such as a sick spouse, children or parents, Fuerstenberg says. In 2018, New York can be added to that growing list.
Likewise, if Secretary Hillary Clinton wins the presidential race, she plans on proposing a paid < family leave federal law, he adds. Multinational employers are already dealing with similar laws in Canada and Europe. However, when you peel back the opinion, he says, the benefits are very small and "hard to live on."
Still, crafting a gender-neutral design is a hot-button issue. HR professionals must also ensure that the benefit's usage is evenly distributed between male and female employees. He says many focus on plan design and ignore how managers are trained, rewarded or inadvertently penalized when male staff use paid leave.
"The EEOC has been clear," he says. "It wants to see these programs on a purely gender-neutral basis," says Fuerstenberg. "Provide the same amount of paid leave to both male and female employees and encourage them to take it. Now the bias goes away."
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