Gender neutralising parental leave is an ambition climbing ever higher up the business agenda. Over the past couple of months an increasing number of brands have opted to enhance or equalise their maternity and paternity policies, while at the same time encouraging discussions around flexible working for parents and non-parents alike.
Aviva is one of the brands leading the way. In November 2017 the insurer introduced equal parental leave, offering all male and female employees up to 12 months leave, with six months at full pay. To date, 67% of new dads working at Aviva have taken six months off and a further 95% have taken more than the statutory two weeks paid paternity leave.
Another leader in this space is Spotify, which describes its paid parental leave policy as “one of the cornerstones” of its culture. All employees are eligible for six months of fully paid parental leave, regardless of location, gender or whether they become a parent via adoption, surrogacy or birth. It is also possible to split the leave and take it at any point in the first three years of the child’s life.
Earlier this month, drinks giant Diageo began offering all parents across its 4,500-strong workforce equal parental leave, including the first 26 weeks at full pay. The scheme is open to all parents regardless of gender, sexual orientation or length of service.
We think it’s important to shine a spotlight on male role models across all levels in the business who have taken or plan to take paternity leave.
Joan Hodgins, Diageo
In the same month, telecoms giant O2 extended its paternity leave for all fathers to 14 weeks at full pay, including staff working in its retail stores.
While these brands are leading the way, it is clear that wider change cannot come soon enough.
Some 36% of UK workers say their employer does not do enough to support new parents, according to a LinkedIn survey of 4,000 UK professionals released in March. The research found that 60% of workers believe their employer was not completely transparent about its parental policies when they joined and over a third (37%) are not even aware of the support their workplace provides new parents.
So tight are the pressures on new parents that just 23% of UK workers feel it is financially worthwhile returning to work after having a child, while 26% of men and 29% of women have considered switching careers to find a job that better accommodates working families.
Crucially, taboos need to be challenged if more men are to take their employer up on enhanced parental leave. A quarter of men questioned by LinkedIn say there is still a stigma about dads taking time off to look after children, reflected in Department of Business statistics released last year which revealed just 2% of couples take advantage of shared parental leave.
When announcing its decision to equalise parental leave, Diageo stated its desire to remove the “barriers to career progression” to ensure talent is retained and nurtured. The drinks company is already the sponsor of Creative Equals’ #CreativeComeback ‘returners scheme’, which supports women in the creative industries returning to work after a career break of at least 12 months.
Introducing progressive policies that create a happier, more loyal and productive workforce was the big motivation behind Diageo’s decision to enhance its parental leave provision, explains Europe HR director Joan Hodgins.
The policy was developed by the UK HR team, in consultation with mums and dads across the business, the talent engagement team and members of the executive committee, including CMO Syl Saller. HR also worked with the corporate relations team to focus on the employee engagement part of the launch strategy.
To help communicate the change internally, Hodgins’ team held calls with leaders across the business, sent emails to all employees in the UK and featured the new policy across its internal social media channels and intranet, using videos to help bring the policy to life. The HR team also held a drop-in session for employees to find out more.
At the heart of the move towards equalised leave was Diageo’s desire to encourage more men to take time off to be with their families.
“One of the most important elements sitting alongside the policy is the focus we’re putting on driving cultural change to normalise paternity leave,” Hodgins explains.
“We think it’s important to shine a spotlight on male role models across all levels in the business who have taken or plan to take paternity leave. We need to change the conversation from women having babies to people having children.”
Diageo is clear the new policy on its own is not enough, so it provides additional support, such as giving new parents access to coaching. The company is also transparent about its commitment to flexible working, including offering a variety of working arrangements ranging from job shares to compressed hours and flexi-time.
While it is hard to predict the level of up-take at this early stage, Hodgins hopes that by offering equal parental leave all employees will feel supported through the early stages of parenthood and upon their return to work.
“We’re totally focused on building an inclusive and diverse workforce, and see this policy as an important step on this journey,” she adds.
Leading with empathy
The stress and trauma that can come with giving birth, especially if your baby is premature or severely ill, is often underestimated by employers. IPG Mediabrands wanted to remove the financial strain on parents of babies in neonatal care by becoming the first media agency to offer premature baby leave.
Introduced in March, the new policy means that if a baby is born prior to 37 weeks the parents receive full pay from the day their baby is born up until their due date in week 40, after which time their maternity or paternity leave begins. For women this is six months leave at full pay, for men nine weeks of full pay.
This means that if a baby is born at 25 weeks, the parents would get an extra 12 weeks full pay before their maternity or paternity leave kicks in. The policy is open to all parents, including those who are adopting or having a baby via a surrogate.
Since we’ve rolled out these additional benefits we have seen an increase in retention and a decrease in attrition.
Lisa Finnegan, LinkedIn
This kind of support is life-changing for parents, says Esme de Courcy, IPG Mediabrands HR director.
“It’s having that peace of mind, knowing if something were to happen and their baby were born early that they’re covered. I think that is really reassuring for people and from an external perspective it is showing our support for working parents,” de Courcy states.
She first brought up the idea to formalise the company’s premature baby leave policy in a conversation with the board, which voted unanimously in favour. It then took just a month from proposing the idea and writing the policy to implementation.
The first announcement was made via email and followed up with a message on the agency’s WhatsApp group. The HR team also attended company meetings, as well as making sure the policy was covered during the induction process and included in the company handbook.
To help communicate the change to prospective employees, the premature baby policy is listed as one of the benefits on all job descriptions.
In a wider move to improve its family friendly policies, IPG Mediabrands began offering staff access to online parental coaching tool Talking Talent. The site features more than 30 modules of pre-leave, during leave and post-leave content, including tips on how to plan your handover, set goals and talk about your return to work.
Employees can also access six in-depth face-to-face coaching sessions, as well as get involved with the buddy scheme where they are partnered with an experienced parent elsewhere in the business.
De Courcy explains that all the work the agency has done around parental leave and returning to work has been intended to even out opportunities and make it as easy as possible to be a parent with a career.
“It’s certainly helping us to attract more gender diverse candidates to senior level roles, so from an attraction perspective that’s definitely having an impact. It’s hard to tell on the retention side just yet as it’s early and we only introduced enhanced maternity leave in the summer,” she explains.
“We’ve certainly seen an increase in maternity and paternity which is great and I’m really pleased people are able to fulfil their life goals outside work. If we’re able to enable people to do that they’ll be happier, more fulfilled and therefore more engaged and productive at work.”
READ MORE: Why parental leave is not a ‘women’s only’ issue
Eighteen months ago, LinkedIn extended its paternity leave from two to six weeks. In addition, all female employees are now eligible to 20 weeks maternity leave at full pay once they have passed their probation period.
The changes were made after the HR team began to see an increasing number of employees having children and putting in requests for flexibility. LinkedIn also realised that enhancing parental leave could help it move closer to greater gender equality.
“There’s an acceptance in society that women will take maternity leave and come back to work, but we still don’t see enough positive examples of men taking paternity or parental leave,” states Lisa Finnegan, LinkedIn EMEA HR director.
“In order for us to really think about true gender equality and both genders playing their side in raising a family, we really need to make sure we’re encouraging all of the people to take advantage of the parental leave available.”
When developing the policy, Finnegan’s team wanted to ensure it offered complete clarity and was relevant for employees, before they began spreading the word across the organisation – starting with the senior leadership.
One such leader was Tom Pepper, head of marketing solutions for LinkedIn UK, who became one of the first men in the business to take six weeks parental leave. Finnegan is keen to harness the power of role models like Pepper, showing that it is possible to take six weeks away from the business and nothing will fall apart.
As well as sharing these personal stories, HR initially worked with the internal communications team on a cohesive strategy to spread the word. This meant putting information on the online benefits portal and explaining the details to new recruits during their induction, as well as educating managers about the enhanced parental leave.
The talent acquisition team have also been briefed to ensure they can articulate the details of the policy with potential new employees.
As soon as the new policy was rolled out, HR started monitoring attrition and retention rates for primarily mothers coming back from leave during three, six and nine months to see if there were any drop off points.
“Since we’ve rolled out these additional benefits we have seen an increase in retention and a decrease in attrition,” says Finnegan.
She is clear the success is not simply about the policy, but the structure it has implemented to “amplify the benefit”. Employees are, for example, encouraged to attend Nurture In sessions to talk to how to balance their work and home life. Meanwhile, managers are coached in how to help an employee going on maternity or paternity leave, or returning from leave.
“Managers are set up to understand that this individual who, maybe 12 months ago didn’t need this type of flexibility or support, really needs it now and they should have up-front, transparent conversations with them about how their needs have changed,” says Finnegan.
Following the “huge” up-take in the sessions, the LinkedIn HR team found people who had participated in the Nuture In sessions tend to stay within the workforce because they had been “set up for success”.
From LinkedIn to Diageo, companies are the reaping the rewards of enhancing or gender neutralising their parental leave, both in terms of attracting more gender diverse talent for top roles and showing parents they have a long-term future in the business.