"Family leave" used to be all about allowing women to take time off work to care for their new babies.
Now, "family leave" is all about forcing men to take time off work to care for their new babies.
Case in point: New York magazine's Annie Lowrey's handwringing over Netflix's just-announced policy of giving new parents "unlimited maternity and paternity leave" (actually, it's up to a year off) when there's a birth or adoption. Here's what Netflix says:
We want employees to have the flexibility and confidence to balance the needs of their growing families without worrying about work or finances. 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.
What if the only people who took advantage of an unlimited leave policy were women? What if those women were mommy-tracked away from the most intense, remunerative parts of a business, toward more marginal, lower-paying positions? The truth is that this already happens in many businesses. Unlimited does not mean “consequence-free,” after all.
No, for more generous parental-leave policies to really tackle the broader problem of women seeing their paychecks shrink and careers derailed by having a child during their peak earning years, norms need to change, too. Men do not just need more generous paternity policies. They need to use them. It needs to become normal for men to take weeks or months off, and to require more flexible schedules to accommodate their new family member’s needs when they return.
So, how to get men to take some time off? Some countries use a policy lever. Sweden, for instance, has a “use it or lose it” parental-leave policy. Families get 16 months of leave, which parents can divvy up however they want. But two of those months are reserved for each parent. If he or she does not take them, they disappear. In 2016, the government plans to add a third reserved month to help close its not inconsiderable pay gap. The policy “is something we’ve really looked forward to. We know that this is a key issue towards attaining greater [gender] equality,” Annika Strandhäll, the country’s minister for social security, has said.
However, motherhood still pushes many women to seek part-time emploment: 18% of women work part-time (vs. 10% of men and in more than a third of couple-families with young children only one of the parents works full-time.
Even in Sweden, you can lead a horse to mandatory-leave water, but you can't make him drink.