Paid Parental Leave Isn’t Just the Right Thing to Do—It’s Good Business

The U.S. compares poorly to other countries with developed economies with respect to support for families, especially parental leave. As a developmental psychologist, as well as a mother and grandmother, I am keenly aware of the importance of providing women and men alike with time to adjust to their new role as parents, time to learn the baby’s needs and rhythms, and time to sleep. Caring for a baby during the first three months is time-consuming and often stressful, especially for first-time parents. And women who have given birth need time to recover.

The business case for parental leave is strong. In the wake of California’s partially paid family leave program, one of the first in the nation, a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found positive or no appreciable effects of parental leave on employee productivity, firm profitability, turnover and morale. President Obama has called out paid parental leave as a national economic priority and a centerpiece of his support for middle-income families.

The pro-family case is also strong. I know from both research and personal experience how important the early weeks are for parents and newborns. During the last 18 months I have seen the importance of paid parental leave for my two daughters, following the birth of my two grandchildren. They were fortunate to have paid maternity leave; many in the U.S. don’t. In terms of support for early care and education, this country ranks 33rd among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; only Slovakia, Cyprus and Estonia are ranked lower. In Sweden, new mothers are guaranteed 16 months paid leave. And in Canada, our neighbor and biggest trading partner, they receive 12 months paid leave. A handful of cities and states, such as San Francisco and New York respectively, have recently mandated paid family leave. But most of the country lags behind.

Paid parental leave isn’t only an issue for mothers, though. Benefits relating to new children should encompass both parents. Parenting is a shared responsibility, and shared parenting supports women, as employees and mothers. A 2010 study in Sweden found that, for every month of parental leave her partner took, a mother saw her future earnings rise by 7 percent. Research from New America, a nonpartisan think tank chaired by Google’s Eric Schmidt, found that enabling new fathers to spend time with newborns not only helped them bond more strongly with their children, but also advanced gender equality by distributing family responsibilities more equitably from an early age.

So this year, I changed the policy at Smith College to ensure that new parents have time to adjust to life with an infant before returning to employment. Under our new parental leave policy, staff who are the primary caregivers of a newborn or adopted child now have 12 weeks of paid leave following a birth or adoption; non-primary caregivers now have four weeks of paid leave. In the case of faculty, the primary-caregiver parent is excused from teaching, research and administrative duties during the semester a child is born or adopted, and the non-primary-caregiver parent is excused from teaching one course.

When I announced the enhanced policy, response from staff and faculty alike was immediate, joyous and proud. Whether just starting their families or entering grandparenthood, members of our community expressed pride in working for an institution that prioritizes work-life balance and children’s development. From a pragmatic standpoint, the new policy helps Smith attract and retain the best professors, administrators and staff. It’s good for parents, and good for Smith.

Changing the work landscape for new parents—primary caregivers and partners alike—is a public policy imperative. We need to build public will for policies that support citizens in being the best employees, employers and parents they can be. Businesses can and should lead the way.

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