Netflix, Microsoft, and the Working Mom

Nearly half of the workforce in the United States is women -- but, says Jessica Shortall in an interview about her new bookWork. Pump. Repeat: The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work -- "America is one of only three countries in the world that won’t pay maternity leave."

Shortall says, 

Women are returning to work after experiencing physical and emotional rigor and they haven’t recovered.  I think we’re placing women in actual danger and we’re not helping businesses either. 

This is clearly bad for mothers and bad for babies, and no picnic for the rest of the family -- but is it bad for business?

Netflix seems to think so, and Microsoft seems to agree. 

On Tuesday, Netflix announced that they're instituting "an unlimited leave policy for new moms and dads that allows them to take off as much time as they want during the first year after a child’s birth or adoption."

The policy is extraordinarily generous:

Parents can return part-time, full-time, or return and then go back out as needed. We’ll just keep paying them normally, eliminating the headache of switching to state or disability pay. Each employee gets to figure out what’s best for them and their family, and then works with their managers for coverage during their absences. 

Microsoft's policy is not quite as expansive, but still a marked change from most American corporations:

[W]e’re enhancing our paid Parental Leave to 12 weeks, paid at 100 percent, for all mothers and fathers of new children. For birth mothers, this is in addition to the eight weeks of maternity disability leave they currently receive, paid at 100 percent, enabling them to now take a total of 20 weeks of fully paid leave if they choose.

Additionally, we’ll offer birth mothers an expanded opportunity to use Short-Term Disability Leave during the two weeks prior to their scheduled due date to manage the physical impact that often comes with late pregnancy and to prepare for the upcoming birth.

We will also offer flexibility for when eligible parents can take leave. Eligible parents will now have the option to take their Parental Leave either in one continuous 12-week period or split into two periods. These parents will also have the option to phase back into work on a half-time basis.

Almost certainly, at least among parents who can't seriously consider quitting permanently, they will retain employees better than companies that offer little or no parental leave, and they'll get better productivity out of those who do return after their leave.

As Jessica Shortall says,

A woman returning at 12 weeks isn’t coming back and killing it. She’s getting no sleep, has raging hormones and just had a baby either pushed or cut out of her. Her body is ravaged. Then, everyone watches to see if she’s “back.”  She has to prove herself so she doesn’t get fired or sidelined.  “No, I’m not tired.  Yes, I’m all right.  Yes, I can work late.  Sure, I’ll go on a business trip.” But she’s not “back.”  She’s a wreck. 

Women are not going to stop working. (And if you know any history, it's a fairly recently conceived ideal to be the stay-at-home-mom who keeps a spotless house, who plays with the children all day, and who looks fresh and lovely as she welcomes her sole-breadwinner husband home to a hot, balanced meal. Recall the wife and mother in Proverbs 31, who is clearly a working mom; and the economy of the Middle Ages, to choose just one era, depended heavily on working women.)

In TIME magazine, Suzanne Venker objects that generous parental leave policies

[aren't] fair to babies. By encouraging mothers, who are the still the primary parent at home, to bond with their baby for a long period of time with the expectation they’ll return to work at the end of the year means the baby will become even more attached to his mother, and separation may become intolerable.

A repulsive suggestion! It implies that women who do return to work cannot bond with their babies, and that kids would be better off leaning from the get-go that mom is unreliable and distant. UGH. Venker continues:

Same goes for the mother. Her attachment to her baby, or her re-thinking of her priorities during this time, may make her even less likely to return to work—thus negating the whole point of the policy, which is to get her attention back on work and off of baby.

Possibly true. A year is a long time, and lots could change.  A year of leave may be long enough to allow the parents to work out a way to survive on one income, and the parent on leave could simply collect for a while and then quit when her time was up.

On the other hand, in that same year, the other parent could become more familiar and confident with the child, and start doing more childcare (which is good for the whole family) -- and the other parent could make some changes at work so that no one is working full-time, and someone is caring for the child all the time. A year is short enough to keep your foot in the door, but long enough to think things through carefully and rationally -- presumably after sleeping through the night for at least a few months!

I am not sure that, as Venker says, "the whole point of the policy... is to get [the mother's] attention back on work and off of baby." Certainly Netflix and Microsoft are thinking of their bottom line, but they also seem to realize that their employees are people, not just cogs. Women (and men, of course) are capable of giving real attention both to work and to their children -- but work and children can both be done better if working moms feel less torn, less rushed, less guilty, and less like every aspect of her life is getting short shrift. These are not impossible goals.

Women can't have it all, and neither can men. Working and raising a family means making sacrifices -- but, if employers are willing to be more flexible and imaginative, those sacrifices don't need to be intolerable. The goal of making life easier for working moms is a very pro-life goal.