In the wake of the pandemic and the events of 2020, diversity and inclusion initiatives have gained a new importance, becoming more common across industries and company size. Yet many companies have taken on these pursuits, whether formally or informally, with limited experience in such work.

To achieve the goals of such efforts, it’s fundamentally important for companies to do far more than bias training or blind interviewing by investing real money to address root causes, both universal and company-specific. Without additional budget, tools, policies, resources, and new approaches, any such effort and initiative will fail to realize its goals. 

With DEI increasingly important to younger employees, getting it right doesn’t affect just the stated goals but also future hiring and recruitment.

Parenthood is the Largest Obstacle to Gender Equality

As it relates to gender equality goals within DEI initiatives, companies absolutely must have a comprehensive, multi-faceted solution for employees having and raising kids. It is by far the most critical component of any gender equality initiative because the gender wage gap triples after parenthood. Unequal and insufficient treatment of employees as parents drives a chasm between men and women’s outcomes.

Up to half of all women without paid parental leave are forced to quit the year they have a child. Additionally, the rate of part-time work doubles while productivity declines dramatically for women that don’t quit. Parenthood is where women’s careers and incomes consistently get derailed.

Insufficient support mechanisms before, during, and after having a child directly cause the majority of the gender wage gap given the financial, emotional, logistical, and career challenges of welcoming and raising kids (see the graph below). Despite driving attrition, stalling careers, lowering productivity, etc. parenthood and its impact on careers is too often left unaddressed. And these impacts occur across all socioeconomic and educational levels. Interestingly, well-educated employees have a higher likelihood of quitting or switching to part-time work.

As a case study, longer paid parental leave was the most impactful change Google made to improve gender equality. “Despite all of Google’s [D&I] efforts, the one that made the most noticeable difference had nothing to do with bias training, or names of conference rooms, or Google Doodles of women. Instead it came about as a result of a change in the company’s incentive system…. For Google, as for others, the key incentive came in the form of family leave…. The result was immediate. Attrition rates for women who had babies plunged by 50 percent.” (emphasis added). (Source: Lipman, Joanne. That’s What She Said: What Men and Women Need to Know about Working Together. Pg. 83.)

Caregiving responsibilities too often fall disproportionately onto moms, and not for societal or cultural reasons, but primarily because of the differences in how companies treat men vs. women when they have kids. Studies have found that if parents can’t equally share the childcare burden in the first months of the child’s life, that unequal dynamic lasts indefinitely, obstructing women’s careers.

Getting all employees to at least 12 weeks of paid parental leave reduces turnover of employees having kids significantly. However, this is just the first step, and frankly, the bare minimum.

Paid Parental Leave isn’t Enough

And paid parental leave on its own does little to address the logistical, emotional, and productivity challenges new parents face, all of which obstruct career advancement if not prevent moms from returning to work altogether.

The chart above comes from a study of women in Denmark, where they have access to ample paid parental leave through the government. What it shows is that paid maternity leave on its own cannot address the ongoing hurdles to career and work caused by parenthood. Women with kids see a significant drop in their earnings.

 While women are more likely to stay with their employer the year they have a kid if they can take at least 12 weeks of paid leave, they are still likely to work part time after welcoming the kid, advance more slowly, or be less productive years after the arrival of their child.

As such, companies that go it alone in offering paid parental leave won’t address the challenges working parents face. They won’t see the retention, career, or gender equality gains they want because of the complex emotional, career, and logistical challenges left unaddressed.

Getting it Right

First, companies need to offer an equal paid parental leave policy that gets employees to at least 12 weeks of leave; one that doesn’t discriminate based on gender or how the child enters the home (e.g. birth vs. adoption). Without that equal, generous policy, dad’s cannot take on as large of a share of the caregiving burden as they’d like or as required for moms to return to their careers.

Second, having a child is a complex, transitional phase of life. Companies must treat it as such by having comprehensive return-to-work plans, policies, and resources for employees and managers alike. They must train managers and supervisors on the unique needs parents of new and young children face to avoid improper management alienating good employees.

Firms need to provide access to parent coaches, experts in helping parents navigate the complex challenges of parenthood from the logistical (planning their leave, finding childcare) to the emotional (handling stress and anxiety of returning to work) to the parenting (what’s normal, not normal for their child). This alleviates immense stress and helps parents better manage everything going on in their life so they can effectively return to work.

While daycare/childcare funding has gained in popularity, it should only be considered after establishing an equal paid parental leave policy of longer than 12 weeks and an extensive parent coaching and support program. Without paid parental leave and support, the impact and benefit of funding for care is more muted as employees will continue to prematurely turnover around the time they have their kids.

Gender equality, equal pay, and more female leadership is predicated on addressing and resolving the largest, most consistent obstacle to women’s careers: Parenthood.