The tech industry has a reputation for being both a wonderland of employee benefits and a place that is unfriendly to families, particularly mothers. Along with the weekly massages, travel stipends, unlimited organic snacks, and casino-themed happy hours are stories of women who are stigmatized and punished for having children, overworked employees who feel they will never be able to balance family and a career, and entrepreneurs who are told by their advisors not to hire women of childbearing age. The dichotomy is stark and puzzling.
The U.S. is one of only four countries in the world—along with Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Papua New Guinea—that does not guarantee the right to paid maternity leave. While a few states offer taxpayer-funded family and medical leave, and while President Obama is pushing for a national paid parental-leave policy, the responsibility of creating these policies remains at the discretion of each employer.
Supportive parental-leave policies are a critical part of keeping women in the workforce and in leadership positions. Considering that women today hold less than 20 percent of leadership positions in corporate America, according to a 2015 report by Colorado Women’s College, and just 5 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are women—all while job participation by women during peak earning years is sharply dropping—the need for widespread change is dire. Tech companies serve as a role model for the rest of the country when it comes to corporate culture. Thus the dichotomy that exists in how the tech industry has ramifications that extend far beyond Silicon Valley.
“We find ourselves at a crossroads, where our workforce demographics, family demographics, and population dynamics are changing,” said Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. “Big tech companies are on the leading edge of supporting families and some tech leaders are speaking out, but by and large, companies don’t necessarily see their own interest or the public interest in creating these policies.”
To better understand the disparities that exist in the tech industry when it comes to supporting employees with families, I examined parental-leave policies at 15 different tech companies across sizes, verticals, and locations.
Leading tech companies like Facebook, Apple, Google, and Yahoo offer some of the most generous parental leave policies in the U.S. Among this group, Facebook is the only company to offer equal time off for all parents, whether they are the birth mother, father, or adopted parents. All new parents at Facebook receive four months of paid leave, as well as $4,000 in “baby cash.” In the past year, Facebook introduced designated breast-feeding rooms at its Menlo Park location. In addition, it offers financial and logistical assistance with adoption and fertility services, including the controversial coverage of egg-freezing costs, which Apple also offers.
Apple’s paid family-leave policy gives expectant mothers up to four weeks before a delivery and 14 weeks after. Expectant fathers and other non-birth parents can take six-week paid parental leaves.
At Google, biological mothers are given 18 weeks of paid maternity leave and 22 if there are complications. New parents, regardless of gender, can receive up to 12 weeks of paid baby bonding time, including adoptive or surrogate caregivers. Non-primary caregivers are eligible for 7 weeks paid leave.
“We formerly had a maternity-leave policy of 12 weeks of fully paid and vested leave, but science better informed our decision-making in 2007,” said Google spokesperson Roya Soleimani. “Twelve-week-olds are at a very different place developmentally than are 18-week olds, so we changed our maternity leave to 18 weeks. It just felt like the right thing to do. After our policy change, we also found that returning moms left at half the rate they were leaving at previously.”
Google also offers a number of caregiving benefits, including consultations for parents searching for childcare, discounts for nanny-placement agencies, and “mother’s rooms” equipped with hospital-grade sterilization tools in all Google buildings, and $500 towards baby supplies. These benefits not only aim to make life easier for working parents, but also to promote a family-friendly atmosphere. According to Shabo, culture can play just as significant a role as the actual policy in supporting new parents, and culture trickles down from the top.
“We’ve seen that upper income, well-educated workers don’t take leave because they think they will be viewed negatively, won’t be taken as seriously, their commitment will be questioned, and they will lose out on opportunities for advancement,” she said. “A lot of research shows that this is true, so leaders have to create a culture where the policies aren’t just something that is on paper, but are encouraged. Culture relies heavily on initial groundbreaking people who take leave and come back.”
YouTube CEO Susan Wojicki was Google’s first-ever employee to go on maternity leave when the company was new. Last year, she went on maternity leave for the fifth time. In a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Wojicki wrote that nearly 5,000 women at Google have gone on maternity leave and that paid maternity leave is “good for business.” Another high-profile female leader to take maternity leave is Marissa Mayer, who was pregnant with her first child when she became the CEO of Yahoo. Mayer actually took some flak for not taking enough maternity leave, as well as for her decision to end Yahoo’s telecommuting policy and install a nursery next to her office. However, she also made significant upgrades to Yahoo’s parental-leave program.
Before Mayer, Yahoo’s policy included disability and maternity benefits that were in line with California’s regulations (six weeks), but provided no paternity leave. In April 2013, Yahoo extended its parental-leave policy to offer 16 weeks of paid maternity leave and 8 weeks of paid time off to fathers and parents of foster, adopted, or surrogate children. Yahoo’s Director of Global Benefits Joe Gracey said this time can be taken anytime within one year of the birth, adoption, or foster-care placement. In addition, Yahoo offers $500 for baby-related expenses, and $5,000 towards adoption. In its larger locations, the company holds periodic “new child showers” with food, games, and decorations for people who have had a child, are expecting, or are thinking of having one. At these events, Yahoo’s benefits teams provides more information about all the various programs and policies.
Twitter’s vice president of diversity and inclusion, Janet Van Huysse, said Twitter provides 20 weeks of paid maternity leave for birth mothers and 10 paid weeks for paternity leave or adoptive parents. It also holds “New Moms and Moms-to-Be” roundtables every quarter where women who are leaving for or returning from parental leave can get together to share questions, concerns, and best practices. This initiative has led to others, including a “Mommy Mentor” program, Working Moms monthly lunches, and the new “Dads On Leave” roundtables.
Instagram and Reddit both offer 17 weeks of paid leave for new moms and dads, making them among the most generous equal-leave policies in the industry. Last fall, Change.org announced that it would offer 18 weeks of fully-paid parental leave to every employee who becomes a parent, biological or otherwise. “Equal leave is particularly important for reducing stereotypes that exist in the workplace because non-equal policies encourage hidden biases that women will be away from work longer, and thus get fewer raises and promotions,” said the Change.org COO Jennifer Dulski, who spearheaded the effort behind the expanded program. “Our view is if you provide equal leave to all parents, you reduce that bias.”
In addition to announcing its own policy, Change.org also initiated a campaign on its petition platform and across social media where employees could put pressure on their employers to do “the right thing.” When employers realize that parental leave is essential to recruiting top talent, Dulski expects this will cause a “sea change” among the tech companies who still lag behind.
And there are many, many companies that lag behind. A majority of tech companies are nowhere near as generous as Change.org, Instagram, Reddit, and its peers, offering the bare minimum or a modicum above it. In 2014, the ad startup PaperG conducted a survey of 97 tech companies ranging from seed stage to post-IPO about their policies. One-quarter of the companies surveyed offer less than a month of paid maternity leave and 43 percent offer less than a month of paid paternity leave. While 100 percent of later stage companies (Series D, post-IPO) offer paid maternity and paternity leave, no seed-stage startups offer family leave policies at all. (By the Series A funding round, this number bumps up to 50 percent.)
This is understandable. Large, well-funded companies have more resources to allocate to parental leave and are more able than a small team to compensate for an employee who is out. Startups at the seed stage generally don’t have human resources infrastructure in place, or even employees for whom paid parental leave is an issue. (This hints at another cultural issue in Silicon Valley—bias against hiring older workers and parents.) Many of the companies interviewed for this article said they started thinking about paid family leave once they had employees that needed it.
“A lot of companies are started by young founders who learn so much on the job,” said Andy Sparks, the COO and cofounder of Mattermark. “They don’t really know what they are doing and blinders are up to anything that is not right in front of them. At Mattermark, we realized we needed to be conscious of family leave if we wanted to respect people’s lives outside of work, even if no one had kids yet.”
Mattermark offers up to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, which is on par with what Pinterest and Kickstarter offer (that’s also what mothers at The Atlantic get, for what it’s worth), as well as 12 weeks of paid paternity leave, which is more generous than Apple or Yahoo. Salesforce, on the other hand, offers just four weeks of paid maternity and paternity leave. These findings corroborate those of PaperG, which found that while there is a relationship between the size or funding stage of a company and whether or not they have a parental-leave policy, there is no relationship between the size or funding stage and the amount of paid maternity or paternity leave they offer. The stronger correlations actually relate to female representation in a company.
The fact that companies with more female employees and leaders are more likely to offer strong parental-leave policies is confirmed by both data and anecdotal evidence, from companies including Rent The Runway, Mattermark, Wildflower Health, and Lyft. These companies are more likely to cultivate an atmosphere that supports work-life balance and does not stigmatize parenthood, according to the PaperG study.
"Rent the Runway is a really family- and mother-friendly company,” said Rent the Runway’s UX Lead Jess Brown. “The maternity policies are well laid out, senior leadership has kids, people have been pregnant, taken maternity leave, come back, and hasn’t impacted their career here at all. It is really empowering and positive to see. I definitely think female founders are a factor in the flexibility because if there are no women around to speak up, it can be intimidating.”
However, across Silicon Valley, women are often not around to speak up, given that they represent a severe minority in the tech workforce and leadership. Men outnumber women 7 to 3 in the tech industry. Just 13 percent of venture-backed companies have at least one female co-founder and tech companies employ an average of 12 percent women engineers. These appalling numbers are often delivered with a cacophony of claims about “pipeline problems” that do little more than absolve the tech industry of its culpability, especially considering sexism is a major contributor to pipeline problems. Large, well-funded companies, like those examined above, have entire departments dedicated to “culture” and human resources teams that focus on supporting women and families, but in the wild west of male-dominated startups, gender prejudice still runs rampant. “When I was starting out, I went to older men COOs for advice and a couple of them told me to be wary of hiring too many women, because if you have a bunch of women on your team, they all get pregnant and leave,” said Sparks, the Mattermark executive. “That happened a couple times, and it just made my skin crawl. If other men get this advice from older men, then it will only be perpetuated and perpetuated.”
Stigmas like these contribute to the motherhood penalty which causes women’s wages to go down when they become parents (while men’s wages actually go up) and to be viewed as less competent, competitive, and worthy of promotion. They also make it far more difficult for women who have children to feel they can balance their job and their career. Textio CEO and cofounder Kieran Snyder spent a month collecting stories from 716 women who left the tech industry and found that the overwhelming reason was “culture.” In an article in Fortune, she wrote that more than two-thirds of the women in her survey said motherhood was a factor in their decision to leave tech, due to unreasonable expectations from managers, an absence of support from the company for things like breastfeeding or childcare, and feeling overtly or implicitly discriminated against by leaders and coworkers.
The progressive and inspiring policies of many of tech’s most prominent companies have not yet trickled down to the rest of the industry, either in practice or in priorities. While the specifics of the actual policies are important, they are just one part—albeit one critical part—of cultivating a culture that is welcoming to women. A 22-week policy or “unlimited” time-off means nothing if women are viewed as less capable, regularly experience harassment, or fear that having children will completely derail their career. Startups have been willing enough to emulate Google in offering free lunch for employees and other perks in an effort to recruit and retain the best staffers. Let’s hope that the same follow-the-leader routine soon takes place for supporting women and families.