A year of paid parental leave: Vital but how likely?

Companies offering more parental leave
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Story highlights

  • Software company Adobe becomes latest tech company to expand paid parental leave
  • The big question is whether people will actually take the generous leave that is being offered

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns, and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN)It's starting to feel a lot like Christmas when it comes to paid maternity and paternity leave. Adobe announced Monday it is now offering up to 26 weeks paid leave for birth mothers and up to 16 weeks paid parental leave for new fathers who are the primary caregivers.

This announcement comes less than a week after Microsoft declared it was offering 20 weeks paid maternity leave on the heels of the Netflix announcement to offer employees -- women and men -- unlimited paid leave the first year after a child's birth or an adoption.
    One year paid ... you read that right.
    CEO discusses benefits of maternity and paternity leave
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    The big question now by supporters of expanded paid leave, and some critics, is whether people will actually take the generous leave being offered.
    Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother Media, who hailed this as a sign of "real momentum" for paid leave, said the key will be making sure the companies maintain a "culture of supporting the actual use of these policies." She added that "we do see at companies where there's a great policy ... there's sort of an unwritten stigma to actually take it all, especially for the men."
    Here's where role-modeling is critical, said Owens. Employees need to see leadership, men and women in key executive positions, taking the leave to show that it's supported.

    Will Zuckerberg go on paternity leave?

    Lotte Bailyn, professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, said it will be very interesting to see whether Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who recently revealed he and his wife are expecting a child after repeated miscarriages, will take paid paternity leave. (Facebook offers four months of paid leave for new parents.)
    If he doesn't take it, that would be a lost opportunity, said Bailyn. If he does take it, his leave from the office would need to be structured in a way to send the best message to Facebook's employees.
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    "He can keep some contact but ... he shouldn't be directing the company from home," she said.
    Ideally, in any organization offering generous and expanded paid leave programs, the employee and his or her team should be planning for the leave well ahead of time, figuring out how the work will be covered and whether any cross-training is needed and setting up some structured guidelines, including some possible contact during the employee's leave, said Bailyn.
    This would help eliminate any resentment that could develop on the part of other employees who feel they have to pick up the slack while their colleague is on an extended leave, and the guilt employees on leave will feel for taking the time they are allowed, she said.
    "People will get nervous about 'I'll be forgotten,' all those kinds of things," she said. "So, if for example, you could provide some idea by which people can stay in touch or be available if a question comes up ... so that some contact is kept ... I think that will make it much easier."

    The issues with 'unlimited' leave

    Bailyn said the expanded leave programs are "wonderful" in principle but believes the more effective programs will be those that provide a set mandate on the specific weeks offered for women and men.
    Netflix's open-ended 'take whatever leave you need' approach is "confusing" and "too uncertain," she said. It "isn't clear enough."
    L.V. Anderson, an associate editor at Slate, raised similar concerns in her piece, "Is Unlimited Parental Leave a Recipe for Guilt and Resentment."
    During an appearance on CNN's "At This Hour," Anderson noted how companies that have instituted "unlimited" vacation time and sick days found that their employees usually take less time off than they would if they have "well-defined entitlements" such as three or four weeks off a year.
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    The thinking, she said, is that if it's up to the employee, they will be worried about looking uncommitted to the company and letting their colleagues down.
    "So the fear is with Netflix's unlimited parental leave that the same thing will happen, that moms and dads will feel guilty about taking that time off and so it won't actually end up benefiting families the way it's intended to," said Anderson.
    Owens of Working Mother Media acknowledges that the "unlimited" concept does carry a sense of workers having to decide and explain what they need and why, as opposed to having defined buckets of, for example, 26 weeks paid leave. But she does say the flexibility in the Netflix approach allows people to decide how much leave they need -- a decision that is going to be different for every new mother and father.
    And, while the moves by tech companies, no doubt inspired to help attract and retain the best talent, are inspiring, she noted how the vast majority of U.S. workers are not benefiting.
    In fact, only 13% of U.S. workers have access to some paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, new mothers are guaranteed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but the law applies only to companies with 50 or more employees, and they would have had to have worked at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months before the leave. Some 40 million workers aren't covered under the law, said Owens.
    Is the United States falling behind in women's rights?
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    "So there are a lot of parents out there scrambling," said Owens, who believes we need mandatory paid maternity leave in the United States (the only advanced industrialized nation that does not mandate paid maternity leave).
    "If we want to have a future labor force ... and if we truly are a family-oriented culture -- which we say we are -- we need to actually support the family. And that's a base thing that every other developed and many undeveloped countries have figured out."

    Why parental leave is important

    Parental leave advocates say paid leave is important because it offers time to build a family.
    "You need time to learn about your baby and your baby to learn about you, and just to learn how to be parents and learn how to be a family," said Owens of Working Mother Media. "If you allow men to become parents and give them the time they need to kind of learn how to be parents, the dividends pay out forever."
    Getting that message out to more employees who are lucky to have generous paid parental leave packages could encourage more of them to take it. It would also help to hear directly from male and female executives on why they took it and what it did for them, said Owens.
    Just think about the impact Mark Zuckerberg could have by publicly sharing his life on paternity leave. It could have a huge impact in tech and beyond.
    Do you think the majority of women and men would take advantage of paid parental leave if they were offered it at their companies? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv or CNN Parents on Facebook.