Etsy's New Parental Leave Policy Is Basically Perfect

Six months paid time off for all new parents sounds like a dream.

Etsy just increased the amount of parental leave it offers. Starting April 1, all workers at the Brooklyn-based company known for selling hipster-precious, hand-crafted goods will be able to take 26 weeks off after the arrival of a child via birth or adoption.

That’s a big increase from the company's old policy, and follows examples set by a bunch of other tech companies that are racing to improve benefits as the war for talent continues.

But what truly makes Etsy’s announcement notable? It's gender neutral. Men and women at the 800-person company will be eligible for six months leave and -- this is key -- Etsy will no longer give more time off to "primary" caregivers, a falsely neutral designation that companies effectively only apply to heterosexual women.

Etsy's headquarters in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Etsy's headquarters in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Previously, Etsy gave "primary" caregivers 12 paid weeks off, and "secondary" parents five paid weeks.

"It was playing out in a gendered way," Juliet Gorman, Etsy’s director of culture and engagement, told The Huffington Post.

"Male employees read the policy and thought, 'I must only be eligible for secondary,'" she said, adding that there's no established definition of what constitutes a primary or secondary parent.

The company is following on the heels of Netflix, Spotify and Facebook, which now offer men and women equal paid time off. The United States has no paid leave policy, but does guarantee 12 weeks of unpaid leave regardless of gender to some new parents.

Gorman pointed out that most millennials are raising their kids in dual-income households where the expectation is that both parents share responsibilities. Designating one of those parents the primary caregiver seemed like a "dated concept," she said.

Although she didn’t know how many Etsy workers fall into the millennial age bracket, Gorman said the company adheres to a "millennial ethic," which apparently means it has a progressive bent and is concerned about the well-being of its workers. Etsy also offers such benefits as six-week sabbaticals and paid time off to volunteer.

"Etsy, regardless of age, is a very kind of plugged-in, ear-to-the ground, socially progressive company," she said.

Of course, we don't know how Etsy's new policy will play out in real life. At Facebook, for example, new fathers still reportedly take about half the time off that's offered to them.

"In many places the idea of a man taking time off at all is stigmatized. For a man to say he’s a primary caregiver, it’s downright impossible," said Josh Levs, author of All In, a book that looks at how fathers are treated in the workplace.

Primary and secondary parent designations are basically just "coded language" that reinforces traditional gender stereotypes, Levs said.

Using a policy based on these designations is harmful is a couple of ways. First, it puts women at a disadvantage at work, as colleagues and supervisors tend to either consciously or unconsciously expect them to stop prioritizing their jobs after the arrival of a child. This typically means that new mothers aren't promoted as much, or aren't asked to take on extra responsibilities like traveling. Indeed, one study found that women’s salaries decrease with every new baby they have.

Men, on the other hand, see their incomes rise when they become fathers. However, they’re put on unequal footing at home, deprived of key bonding time with their children and the ability to provide support to their coparent. Men who take leave are less likely to have partners who suffer from depression, one study found.

A couple of years ago, Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson tweeted about taking a five-week paternity leave and encouraged other dads to follow suit.

Oh, and giving men and women different amounts of time off for caregiving -- beyond the time it takes a birthmother to heal from childbirth -- is considered discriminatory, said Peter Romer-Friedman, a Washington-based civil rights lawyer.

"Policies that give disproportionate amounts of parental leave are vulnerable to legal attack under sex discrimination laws," he said.

Levs knows this better than anyone. When he was working at CNN a few years ago, he tried to use the 10 weeks of parental leave his parent company Time Warner offered, but was told he wasn’t eligible. Men could get the 10 weeks if they adopted a child with their partner or used a surrogate, but fathers whose partners gave birth could only get two weeks paid time off. Ultimately, Levs filed a complaint against the company and Time Warner changed its rules.

Still, plenty of other firms hold fast to the "primary" caretaker concept, including Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Adobe.

When Levs asked Goldman if a heterosexual man with a wife who gives birth to a child would ever be eligible for paid leave, the company declined to comment. When HuffPost asked about this again recently, a Goldman spokeswoman said she didn’t have anything to add.

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