To Gender Equality and Beyond
By Amber Burnap, CLMS, Senior Absence Consultant, Strategic Non-Medical Solutions, Brown & Brown
As employers seek more inclusive environments, many have opted to move away from binary gender language in company policies. More companies are removing gender pronouns from policies and handbooks in favor of more gender-neutral terms, such as they, their, and them. They’re also working to ensure that benefit programs are equitable, accessible, and inclusive. A testament to this: Merriam-Webster’s word of 2019 was they.
Historically, company-paid family leave was compartmentalized into maternity and paternity leaves; mothers were compensated via disability policies for childbirth, and both parents could access unpaid federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave for bonding time. And while some policies may have provided an additional short period of paid leave to mothers that coincided with FMLA bonding time, fathers were unable to access these benefits.
The next generation of policies eliminated the words “maternity” and “paternity” altogether. This language was replaced by primary and secondary caregiver definitions with the duration of leave varying by caregiver type. However, employers then had to determine who was the primary or secondary caregiver, which led to inconsistent policy application.1
In addition, the policies inherently assumed widespread gender norms associated with caretaking responsibilities — essentially that the birth mother would assume the role of primary caregiver. As such, companies began automatically designating birth mothers as primary caregivers. And by default, fathers received secondary caregiver benefits. Litigation and discrimination claims ensued. The progressive evolution of the family dynamic, in tandem with employers keenly attuned to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives, continues to shape the definition of family leave in the workplace. Forward-thinking companies, such as Lululemon and Diageo North America, have established gender-neutral paid family leave programs that support all parents.
- Lululemon states, “Our parenthood program provides paid leave of up to six months to global employees at all levels. The policy is gender neutral and applies to maternity, paternity, and adoption leaves. The amount of paid time off depends on tenure to honor the commitment of employees who stay with us over the long-term.”2
- Diageo North America states, “This policy [which includes 26 weeks of paid leave for parents, regardless of gender] is central to how we continually support a work environment that is purpose-led, performance-enhancing and competitive with our peer companies.”3
The restructuring of these company policies, which was influenced by a changing workforce and approach to parenting, provides equal paid leave time for new parents following the birth or adoption of a child. They also accommodate evolving gender stereotypes that ultimately shape parental responsibilities. As new parents, fathers can now spend significantly more time with their children and better support their partners. Mothers, on the other hand, may feel less pressure when taking leaves and no longer view perceived barriers, such as stalled career advancement and exiting the workforce, as inevitable.4
The LGBTQ+ community also benefits from gender neutrality in policies, which acknowledge that family units come in many shapes and sizes, regardless of gender, sex, and sexual identity. Oftentimes used interchangeably, each of these terms are uniquely different. “Gender” or “gender identity” refers to how individuals perceive themselves (whether or not this mirrors their assigned sex). The term “sex” is used to describe the individual’s sexual anatomy. And “sexual identity” serves to inform others how the individual identifies as a sexual being.
Employers that seek to better support employees with varying needs or at different life stages have begun adding paid caregiving components to their benefit offerings, either through the addition of a paid family care policy or by enhancing paid parental leave policies to include family care leave reasons. The addition of these paid family care benefits addresses groups of employees who are not focused on child-rearing (i.e., may be caring for older parents, sick or disabled children, etc.) and helps ensure that benefits are equivalent across the workforce.
Gender neutrality, specifically as it pertains to caregiver leave that is not bonding-focused, can further mitigate the bias that women assume the role of caregiver and lessen the potential for negative career impacts that women fear when taking caregiver leaves. While statutory programs are helping to push paid caregiver time off into focus, a gap still exists, and company caregiver leaves remain infrequent (by comparison to paid parental leave programs).
Perhaps the most assertive federal attempt to implement a nationwide policy on paid parental leave occurred in 2021 through President Biden’s Build Back Better bill. However, the reality of paid leave becoming national law remains in the hands of states and companies.5
As paid leave policies start to neutralize the gender gap, the U.S. may find itself ahead of the game since it has more gender-neutral policies than other countries. This might be due to late adoption of paid leave policies in the U.S., while other countries had existing nationwide policies to support maternity and paternity leaves.6 Without a national leave on record, the U.S. was able to start from a different vantage point.7
Above and Beyond
Beyond paid caregiver leave policies, sexual orientation and gender identity have influenced policies and procedures in the workplace.
Both the Department of Labor (DOL) and the federal government have adopted anti-discrimination policies regarding gender identity, which note that discrimination based on gender identity or expression is sex discrimination.8
A study by the National Center for Transgender Equality indicated that 77% of transgender respondents who had a job in the preceding year reported hiding their gender transition at work or quitting their jobs along with other steps to avoid mistreatment at work. Nearly half (47%) of the respondents said they did not ask their employers to refer to them with correct pronouns (such as he, she, or they) out of fear of discrimination. Nonbinary respondents (66%) were nearly twice as likely to avoid asking for employers to use their correct pronouns compared to transgender men and women (34%).
However, as more employers ask for preferred pronouns, this situation may improve. As such, employers can expect to see terms like “nonbinary” and “female-bodied” becoming more prevalent in company policy language, in an effort to support the LGBTQ+ community.
While undoubtably more accommodating, this “neutralization” of how employers refer to and acknowledge employees is not without its unique set of challenges. The existence of multiple time-off programs further complicates the coordination of benefits when an employee experiences an absence, considering that the majority of existing programs are inherently structured to differentiate between gender and sex.
Programs like the federal FMLA, short-term disability, statutory paid family and medical leave (PFML), and paid family leave (PFL) programs, and company PFML, PFL, and paid parental leave programs may all run concurrently and/or intersect during a single period of absence. However, the way terminology is defined and applied may conflict across an employer’s policies.
If you are looking to initiate change within your organization, consider how to define success with regard to employee adoption and/or acceptance of policy changes.
Don’t be afraid to start small by reviewing current policies for opportunities to be more inclusive. And ask what your employees want and need. Leverage employee feedback and resource groups across the organization to understand the specific needs of your population as well as how those needs align with your overall DEIB strategy. This will promote offering benefits that align with employee needs, company strategies, and even recruitment and retention strategies.
- Clouse|Brown PLLC. Clouse, Keith. Hidden Risks and Benefits of Implementing Gender-Neutral Parental Leave Policies. Aug. 8, 2018. Retrieved from https://clousebrown.com/gender-neutral-parental-leave/
- Careers. What We Do. Retrieved from https://careers.lululemon.com/en_US/careers/WhatWeDo
- Forbes Magazine. Carter, Christine Michel. Three Working Dads at Diageo North America Explain the Importance of Gender-Neutral Parental Leave. Oct. 19, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinecarter/2021/10/19/three-working-dads-at-diageo-north-america-explain-the-importance-of-gender-neutral-parental-leave
- Gurchiek, Kathy. Best Companies for Dads Encourage Gender-Neutral PTO. Sept. 24, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/behavioral-competencies/global-and-cultural-effectiveness/pages/best-companies-for-dads-encourage-gender-neutral-pto-.aspx
- Kaiser Family Foundation. Paid Leave in the U.S. Dec. 17, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.kff.org/womens-health-policy/fact-sheet/paid-leave-in-u-s/
- Lobosco, Katie. Americans May Finally Get Paid Family Leave. Here’s What to Know. Oct. 26, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2021/10/26/politics/paid-family-leave-biden/index.html
- Maurer School of Law: Indiana University. Examining Recently-Enacted Law in the United States and Australia. 2021. Retrieved from https://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3991&context=facpub
- U.S. Department of Labor. DOL Policies on Gender Identity: Rights and Responsibilities. Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/agencies/oasam/centers-offices/civil-rights-center/internal/policies/gender-identity