Tech Companies Should Pave the Way to Better Parental Leave Policies
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My first child arrived at the same time as our Series A funding. The second showed up just in time for Series B. Not the best timing, obviously, especially considering my husband is an executive at the same company. What can I say? Babies and venture capitalists (VCs) tend to operate on their own terms. Yes, I had my laptop at the hospital briefly for critical sign-offs. But I could also banish work when need be. I was so fortunate -- a wonderful nanny who brought the babies so I could nurse, a home close to my office and the freedom to work from home, leave early, or take a chunk of time off when my family needed me.
I grew up in Slovenia, where extensive, paid parental leave is a given -- as it is in the rest of Europe and the developed world. Perhaps that’s why I never questioned my right to take what time I needed, to make my job fit into the space leftover after taking care of my babies, and not the other way around. Every parent should feel that this is her right. I have had female colleagues say to me, almost bragging, “I am a bad mother” as though this statement confirms their professional worth and loyalty. I think it’s patently disgusting that any parent feels they have to utter such justifications.
At Celtra, we are taking a stand on the importance of paid parental leave by implementing an industry-leading policy and showing that mid-size tech companies can and should provide a better environment for working parents. If your company has 50 or more employees, it can be done and I encourage you to join us in forging the way.
Recently, public debates and campaigns advocating paid parental leave have become much more prominent. A few states and municipalities have passed legislation expanding the benefits guaranteed by the FMLA; hopefully more are in the works. Several big companies have taken significant steps forward with their paid leave policies. It’s well overdue for American leaders to start treating quality bonding time with newborns as a necessity. As expert Jessica Shortall pointed out in her excellent piece for "The Atlantic", we do a better job of legislating protections for newborn kittens and puppies than we do for human infants. The U.S. is the only advanced nation in the world that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave (most developed countries provide the benefit to fathers or partners as well).
Only 12 percent of workers in the U.S. private sector have paid family leave. The consequences of this national travesty are well documented -- postpartum depression, higher infant mortality and illness and persistent educational and economic disadvantages. And yet, there’s a long history of strident push back against such proposals and wrongheaded doomsday predictions about the damage they will do to business. It seems to me, even when a progressive company provides paid leave of their own accord, it has to be couched in terms of productivity, or competitive advantage, or other financial justifications.
So it may be surprising that, as a CFO, I don’t want to emphasize those business-friendly talking points when I discuss my company’s new paid leave policy. Of course we prize productivity and competitive edge -- our record of success and growth speaks for itself. But we implemented the policy because it is simply the right thing to do. I don’t want my employees to martyr themselves as they try to navigate the storm of stress that comes with balancing a newborn and a demanding tech job. It isn’t humane to put parents and babies in that position. I firmly believe we should be past hashing it out and crunching the numbers -- it’s time to walk the walk. And I’m putting it out there because leadership is a vital component in making this all work. Writing a policy isn’t enough, we have to put it into practice and figure out how to really meet our employees’ needs.
Even with policies granting paid leave in place, many will be hesitant to take the time away from work. Men, especially, have a tendency to believe it isn’t culturally acceptable to stay home with their newborn for an extended period of time. As soon as we announced our expanded policy to the company, several fathers cautiously approached us to ask if they could take a week or two, as they had not yet taken leave or spent enough time with their young ones. The policy gave them the courage to speak up and ask for what is rightfully theirs.
I’m happy to see leaders like Mark Zuckerberg publicly claiming that it’s important for fathers to stay home to bond with their babies and partners, and even more appreciative that he set an example by doing it himself. And I’m emboldened by the support from unexpected champions, like our board of directors. The chairman, Tim Wright, said to me: “Maja, I so support the way Celtra leadership thinks about their employees. I completely trust your instincts to do the right thing in the right way. You don’t even need to tell me how many weeks you decide to grant, or how many people it will impact. I trust it and I want it to be known that I fully support it.” This is the kind of leadership and investment we need to grow strong companies and healthy communities.
I want our best and brightest employees to be role models, to show that parents can successfully manage both work and family life when they are supported with practical and flexible benefits. I want our employees to have total peace of mind as they leave work behind for a bit to focus on that precious baby, confident that it won’t damage their careers or harm the company. I aim to set a higher standard for companies like Celtra -- to prove that there is a fair and sustainable way to create space for families, even in a growing mid-size technology company. We thrive by recruiting and retaining the industry’s top talent. We can’t treat them like robots or cogs in a machine.
We can’t expect to entice more women into the tech workforce if we can’t acknowledge the most fundamental realities of biology and parenting. Millennials are growing their families, and in many ways they want to do it differently than their parents did, as they should. Fathers and partners want to be more involved in child rearing and women want to work and advance their careers. These cultural shifts have been evolving for decades -- it is high time tech companies figured out how to accommodate reality instead of pretending it’s still 1955.
If we push people to come back too soon, or to be online and available during the first few months of their child’s life, we put them in an untenable position. They will feel that work is asking them to sacrifice too much, which may cause them to quit their job or to force themselves to work under extreme stress. I don’t believe people can do their best work when they are not at peace. Most of Celtra’s very talented employees treat their job like a personal mission. We want to preserve that spirit by allowing them to be in full control of their priorities and time during those first months when everything is changing and the world is turned upside down. If they are in the driver’s seat, they will find a way to get back to their mission at work in way that makes sense and feels sustainable for their family.