In late 2015, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced they'd be expanding their paid parental leave program from 16 weeks on average to 52 weeks in the first year after the birth or adoption of the child. It was a way for the company to show their commitment to family by giving moms and dads even more time to bond and care for a new bundle of joy, without sacrificing financial security. It raised the bar very high among companies competing to offer generous benefits to attract and retain talent.
However, today the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that, effective later this year, their 52-week paid parental leave program will be no more. Instead, the program will drop down to six months, and after the six months, parents returning to work will receive a $20,000 taxable stipend to pay for childcare costs and other family needs. Employees who are already on leave or are expecting before the program starts, however, can still take 52 weeks of paid parental leave if they'd like.
In a LinkedIn post, Steven Rice, the organization's chief human resources officer, explained the reasoning for the policy change. After monitoring the program and receiving employee feedback, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation saw that in practice, giving employees one year of paid parental leave created some problems and was "disruptive" for their organization. "Backfill positions had a ripple effect across the organization, in some cases extending two or three layers deep. While some backfills are hired externally, a large percentage are internal, and once we backfilled the role of an employee going on leave, we often needed to find a backfill for the backfill," he wrote. "On one team, 50 percent of the staff was either on leave or staffed by those in backfill positions, making the regular work of the foundation far more difficult than expected."
Other issues had to do with finding, hiring and training people to temporarily replace those on paid parental leave, and then getting returning workers up-to-date, all of which takes up a lot of time and energy. "Managers also told us some common challenges were magnified by the leave duration. They noted the difficulty of identifying and onboarding backfill talent, facilitating a sufficient transfer of knowledge, and re-onboarding returning employees, especially if teams, business goals, or individual roles changed during a year away," Rice wrote.
"Ultimately, we concluded the 52-week leave was hindering the foundation’s purpose—to maximize our ability to help people around the world live healthy, productive lives. After careful consideration, we decided to change the policy. We want to make parental leave work for both new parents and the foundation overall, and still offer a generous and leading benefit in the U.S." According to Rice, changing the program length from 52 weeks to six months was based on "a growing body of evidence shows that a six-month policy delivers on key outcomes like the health and development of children, gender equality, and women’s careers," and that "experts who have studied the connection between the length of leave and ideal outcomes recommend a similar standard."
As we reported back in 2017, a Bloomberg article suggested that more than six months, but less than a year, may truly be the sweet spot in terms of ideal length of maternity leave. Six months of maternity leave means moms and babies get the health benefits of recovery and time together, but more than a year of it may delay moms' career advancement or labor force participation. The article involved interviews with multiple women, and cited a Harvard Business School Survey and expert advice.
While we applaud the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for giving workers 52 weeks of paid parental leave in the first place, their decision makes total sense if they want to continue running their organization smoothly. Six months is still generous (as reported by the Society of Human Resource Management, in 2016, the average maximum amount of maternity leave offered by companies is 14.5 weeks), and some parents genuinely don't want to take a long maternity leave, for reasons they shouldn't be judged for. But that $20,000 stipend after six months at home? That can help all working parents a great deal by ensuring a smoother transition, and possibly accelerate advancement, which could lead to more money over time.
— Maricar Santos
This story originally appeared on Working Mother. Working Mother is mentor, role model and advocate for the country’s more than 17 million moms who are devoted to their families and committed to their careers. Through our website, magazine, research, radio and powerful events, Working Mother provide
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