The Problem With Netflix’s 'Unlimited' Parental Leave
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The Problem With Netflix’s 'Unlimited' Parental Leave

It's certainly generous, but it's by no means a magic bullet for gender equality.
August 7, 2015, 5:00pm

This week, Netflix announced a very progressive-sounding update to its employee benefits: "unlimited" parental leave for both mothers and fathers.

The emphasis on equal offerings for men and women seems on the surface like a great win for gender equality—but while it's certainly a step in the right direction compared to many company's policies, it won't be a magic bullet to buck gender norms. It's also the latest in a string of Silicon Valley perks that supports a very particular idea about how parenting should be.

"My sense is it's a nice idea; I don't know if it will actually make a huge change to gender equality," said Charlotte Faircloth, a sociologist from the University of Roehampton and founding member of the Centre for Parenting Studies at the University of Kent.

The new policy is undoubtedly generous: It allows employees to take as much paid leave as they want within the first year after a child's birth or adoption. This is really good, and far exceeds what most US companies offer; Netflix should be applauded for its generosity. In particular, including fathers on an equal footing as mothers is an important step.

Sharing the "burden" of care for a new child is important for gender equality for obvious reasons: it helps combat the stereotype that men should prioritise work while women should focus on family, which is damaging for both women and men's freedom of choice. These outmoded but still-prevalent ideas can result in women facing stigma for returning to work soon after becoming a mother (see the furor around Marissa Mayer), but also in men being judged if they choose to help with childcare.

That imbalance can also result in discrimination against young women seeking work or looking for promotion. It's illegal to discriminate on those grounds, but it happens.

In many countries and companies, women are entitled to more leave, which helps solidify these gender norms. In this sense, Netflix's equal maternity and paternity allowance could in theory help redress the balance among its employees. Other companies are also following the lead, with Microsoft this week also announcing an extended and more gender-equal parental leave policy. But what's allowed on paper is not necessarily a good indicator of what happens in practice.

Chances are that female Netflix employees will still take more leave, will still feel pressured to take more leave, and will still be perceived as more likely to take leave.

Just because employees can technically take as much time as they want doesn't mean they'll actually feel able to. In the tech industry, known for its ambitious and high-achieving atmosphere, the pressure of falling behind will no doubt pressure people into minimising time away. That's why companies like Netflix can also have an "unlimited" vacation policy and still have a functioning business.

That wouldn't affect gender equality too much, if women and men were persuaded and dissuaded to take parental leave in equal measure. But that's not the case. The simple fact is that mothers take more leave than fathers, even when it's offered to both. While that could be down to personal choice in many cases, that choice is tempered by societal pressures on women to look after children, and on men not to. Blame the patriarchy.

"I know certainly from my research that there's still quite a gender bias around what's considered appropriate when taking leave," Faircloth told me. She said she'd worked with many men who said they'd have liked to take more paternity leave, but felt unable to as it just wasn't the done thing among men in their office.

The obvious comparison is the shared parental leave model in countries like Norway and Sweden: both have a "daddy quota" within the time offered to parents that determines a portion of the shared leave that can only be taken by the father. "It wasn't really until they made it non-transferable—so unless the dad uses it no one gets it—that men actually started to take leave," Faircloth said.

Chances are that female Netflix employees will still take more leave, will still feel pressured to take more leave, and will still be perceived as more likely to take leave.

But concerns about the impact of parental leave policies go beyond direct effects on gender bias. Faircloth suggested that in these situations, the rhetoric of gender equality and employee benefits can obscure a broader view of how parenting should be done.

"If you look a bit closer, they're kind of more about this concern about the importance of parenting, and trying to promote what's called 'intensive parenting,'" she explained. This promotes the intensive involvement of parents in their children's upbringing—an outlook obviously encouraged by more generous parental leave policies. Faircloth said that this idea "fits into wider political debates about how parenting is the source of and solution to a whole load of problems."

In the US, where there is no national requirement for paid parental leave, companies often seem to step into roles that would be filled by the state in many European countries, and can perhaps therefore have more influence on how we view parenthood.

This notion of parenting as an "intensive" activity has been hinted at before in Silicon Valley policies, such as in Apple and Google's egg-freezing benefits. On the one hand it's nice that these companies seem supportive of their employees' family lives; on the other it perhaps risks directing society's view of what being a "good" parent means into a pretty specific (and for many unattainable) definition.

Why should employees who are child-free by choice miss out on the paid leave everyone else gets for having kids by choice?

Beyond that, pushing the idea of parenting as such an intensive pursuit can also lead to antagonism in the workplace among parents and non-parents. Faircloth said she had recently noticed a very individualistic rhetoric around having kids—or not having kids—as being a personal choice, and moving away from the idea of children as a kind of common social good. By leaving the amount of time they take off up to parents, policies like Netflix's emphasize this individualistic approach to parenting.

But you can see how this could result in tension between coworkers: Why should employees who are child-free by choice miss out on the paid leave everyone else gets for having kids by choice? What if they have other activities they want to dedicate their time to with equal passion?

"It can kind lead to slightly greater social division, I think, than perhaps some policymakers realize," said Faircloth.

So what's the fix? There's no easy answer, but there is another notable piece in the puzzle: childcare and flexible working hours.

Even if parents take the full amount of "unlimited" paid leave offered—even if they split that leave 50/50 in a demonstration of perfect gender equality—the issue won't be resolved on their return to work. Whether parents take two weeks, three months, or a year off, their baby won't stop needing care after parental leave is over. And then, the same old gender expectations tend to raise their head again, with women expected to take on more of the domestic family role on top of their career workload.

The sheer cost of childcare often means it makes sense for one parent to stay at home whether they have paid leave or not. Inflexibility in working hours can also mean parents find it difficult to balance the demands on their attention.

"Whether you take six months or three months or nine months, I don't think makes a huge amount of difference to your career in the very long run," Faircloth said of parental leave. "But it does make a difference if you're, for the next five years, working part time, or always leaving at 3 o' clock."

The Fawcett Society, an organisation that campaigns for equality for women and men, said it was delighted with the generosity of Netflix's policy, but also echoed the need to support parents returning to work and to promote flexible working hours. "Caring responsibilities do not stop when the child is one, managing work around caring for children as well as elderly or disabled relatives is a reality that most of us will face at some point," they said.

Placing more of an emphasis on childcare would help alleviate the pressure on parents not only in the immediate aftermath of the birth, but throughout their continued careers. It would allow both parents more flexibility to return to work when they want, rather than feeling pushed to take on the childcare role themselves because that's what they can get paid.

I reached out to Netflix to clarify their childcare policies beyond maternity and paternity leave but didn't get a response. By most accounts, however, Silicon Valley in general could do more on this front. Facebook has been known to offer on-site day care facilities. For dogs.

XX is a column about occurrences in the world of tech, science, and the internet that have to do with women. It covers the good, the bad, and the otherwise interesting developments in the Motherboard world.