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Look deeper at splashy headlines about family leave

A newborn baby being shown to somebody over

A newborn baby being shown to somebody over the internet through skype. Credit: iStock

The way companies have been advertising their benefits for new moms and dads, you'd almost think they had gotten religion about work-life balance.

Netflix kicked off the juggernaut last month by offering 12 months of paid maternity or paternity leave. Consulting firm Accenture said its workers won't be required to travel on business for the first year of their children's lives -- but if they choose to do so, the company will ship home the breast milk of working moms. Investment firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts displayed some deep-pocketed creativity for parents traveling on assignment by offering to pay for a nanny's plane ticket, meals and hotel room.

Think of it! For so many years, we women were told that motherhood was a career liability. These firms are practically begging parents to take a job.

Well, almost. Enter a lesson from Economics 101: The companies laying out such generous parental benefits are, for the most part, competing for high-end experts in finance or technology. Adobe Systems, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, IBM, Twitter and Vodafone are among the firms flashing their parent perks.

The rise of a generation largely raised by two working parents -- or one single, working parent -- is creating a demand for more flexible, egalitarian workplaces. And as millennial men express their desire for fully shared parenting, hiring managers are listening -- perhaps with new intensity now that more male voices are calling for family time.

But it's one thing to issue a millennial-friendly news release, and another to make these policies work in real life.

For one thing, the supports are sharply divided along class lines. Just 12 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave, according to the Labor Department, and this new cache of shiny benefits isn't likely to expand that by much. Netflix's yearlong leave, for example, applies only to its digital operation: employees with specialized technical skills. The hundreds of blue-collar workers who handle customer service and DVD logistics receive 12 weeks of leave -- still better than many new parents get elsewhere, but clearly prone to creating resentment.

Likewise, in June, venture capital company Virgin Management announced a full year's paid leave for parents, including adopters. But in an organization with 50,000 workers worldwide, the benefit applies to fewer than 140 employees in London and Geneva.

Some countries that mandate generous maternity leave have found many women lose their jobs as a result. Since the United Kingdom in 2003 passed a law giving women six months of paid, job-protected time off, the number of British women dismissed when they were pregnant or on maternity leave has almost doubled to 54,000, according to Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission.

How can that be? The Guardian in July published one English woman's story: After taking a year off from her senior-level management job for an international marketing company, she returned to find "that my role had been dismantled." The firm offered her a different post, claiming that it was similar, but which actually represented a significant demotion. She took a severance package instead.

Germany and Sweden have found that managers are reluctant to hire women for senior positions, believing they can't spare executives for extended baby leave. Women are ending up in lower-paying positions, creating a barrier to pay equity and hardening the glass ceiling to promotion.

Family life is precious and important. We can't let employers dangle family supports like bright baubles without asking how well and equitably they're prepared to implement them.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.