Originally featured in Strixus Magazine
Decades of child development research demonstrate the importance of early attachment, yet the United States is just one of six countries where paid parental leave remains a rare privilege. This leaves it up to employers to do the right thing, but biases are holding families back.
As of 2021, just 23% of civilian workers in the U.S. had access to paid parental leave. Employers against such policies often cite budgetary strain, but 41% of people admit they simply think working moms are less devoted to their jobs — and it’s misconceptions like these that are proving detrimental to families everywhere.
In a rare exception to the rule, all Dropbox employees are entitled to 24 weeks of paid new child leave. That means birthing, non-birthing, and adoptive parents can all benefit from the industry-leading policy and, upon returning to the office, Dropbox also offers supports to help them transition back into the workplace.
On the surface, the generosity of such a policy might be clouded by assumptions about its financial ramifications, but Dropbox and countless others are holding firm that paid parental leave is a key component to long-term success for employee and company alike.
Are People Against Parental Leave?
In a 90-page Human Rights Watch report titled “Failing Its Families,” working mothers shared their experiences regarding job seeking, employment, and time off. The report states: “Many women said that merely revealing they were pregnant and requesting leave triggered tensions with employers, and sometimes demotions or pay cuts.”
Paula R., an attorney, took only five weeks of unpaid maternity leave after birthing her daughter and, upon returning to work, discovered that someone else had been hired in her place, and her boss had given him Paula’s office. From that point, Paula was expected to work in the conference room. “I think once you’ve taken a leave as a working mother you’re always viewed as a flight risk. Like you’re not really putting your job first,” Paula said.
Another mother named Judith K. shared this: “[My boss] just felt like he’d done some great service to society allowing me a three-month unpaid leave … They gave pay increases to others, and felt giving three months off was enough for me. They didn’t send me to conferences. People think you’re not committed to work or a dependable employee.”
With story after story echoing these sentiments, it is no wonder why one in five women say they are nervous to tell their employers that they are pregnant. Another one in four say they are concerned about how colleagues will perceive them once they have children. Both fears stem from decades of unfair treatment of parents in the workplace.
Up until 1993, working parents who took unpaid leave may have been terminated on the spot, or return to find that someone else had taken their position. Nearly 30 years ago, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) finally forced employers to let parents take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave — a monumental achievement at the time, but regulations have barely moved much in the decades since.
What’s more, roughly 44% of U.S. workers don’t even qualify for the bare minimum benefits offered by the FMLA since it excludes part-time employees and smaller businesses. As a result, more companies are taking matters into their own hands.
Why Dropbox Takes a Family-First Approach
Companies like Dropbox say that even though the numbers supported their decision to enact paid parental leave, the desire to put people first was their primary motivation.
“At Dropbox, we believe people do their best work in a culture that supports the whole person, and we’ve worked hard to establish policies and benefits that aim to help all Dropboxers thrive,” says Melanie Collins, the company’s chief people officer.
In addition to 24 weeks of paid time off upon the birth or adoption of a new child, Dropbox also gives parents a transitional week upon returning to the workplace. During this week, returning parents only have to work 60% of the expected time, and they still receive a full paycheck.
Not long after Dropbox implemented its policy, the company was able to share its impact with a first-hand account from Devin Didericksen, a father who says the policy changed his family’s life.
“My wife was only 28 weeks along when she gave birth to my son, who was born at just 2.5 lbs and spent over two months in the NICU,” Devin recalled. His son was discharged just before Christmas fully recovered, along with his spouse. However, as Devin approached the end of his 24-week parental leave period, the idea of suddenly adopting a 40-hour work week again proved daunting.
To help him transition back, Devin’s manager worked with him to schedule two-day work weeks until he was ready to be back full-time. “I feel very grateful to work for a company that cares so much about their employees,” Devin said.
According to the American Psychological Association, policies like these are exactly what the workforce needs.
“Mothers fare better when they have paid time off after giving birth, including a 51% decrease in the risk of rehospitalization,” the APA writes.
The APA also enumerated countless mental health benefits associated with paid parental leave, adding: “Women who aren’t able to take as much time off — especially those who return to work in under two months — face more depressive symptoms and more marital and self-esteem problems … Even two to three years later, women who took shorter maternity leaves report more psychological distress.”
Back in the office, paid parental leave also has a measurable impact on the bottom line. One study of more than 1,500 employers found that over 70% reported an increase in employee productivity after enacting paid parental leave policies. What’s more, an astounding 80% reported an increase in employee morale.
Moving Beyond Policy
Countless employees at Dropbox and beyond have been empowered by paid parental leave policies. Yet even with 82% cross-party support for a federal program, it is still in the hands of companies to deliver the rights that parents so desperately need. The question is, how do we put the stigma aside and actually start giving working parents the tools they need to have a healthy family and a successful career?