With Expanded Parental Leave Benefit, Tech Signals It Wants To Hire Women

By Michelle Quinn
San Jose Mercury News.

Tech companies are tripping over themselves showing that they “get it” when it comes to family leave.

First Netflix blew everyone out of the water with paid family leave for a year. Then Microsoft expanded its benefits to 12 weeks.

Now Adobe Systems is joining in with 16 weeks of paid leave for new parents, as the firm announced Monday.

What’s behind this flurry of Silicon Valley parental leave news?

Of course, these bennies are a byproduct of a tight labor market and the fight for talent.

But they are about something else, too, in its aim to diversify its workforce, Silicon Valley firms have come up with a long overdue way to signal that they welcome female workers. The message behind these expanded leave programs is clear: Women, please apply.

“As a working mom myself and a working leader, this particularly speaks to women,” said Donna Morris, Adobe’s senior vice president of people and places. “We want to inspire people to be attracted to our sector, too.”

Tech has long seen itself as a pure meritocracy that fairly rewards hard work and talent. Contrast that sense with the so-called “leaky pipeline” of female employees who leave or downshift in their careers. Female engineers tend to drop off after a few years on the job, with few staying into middle age. One study found that nearly 40 percent of women with engineering degrees leave or don’t enter the field. The chief culprit isn’t necessarily companies’ work/life policies, but the general working environment.

In “Lean In,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said women should carefully pick their life partners.

Maybe as important is picking the right employer.

Even for those workers for whom being a parent is not on the horizon, how the company handles these issues sends a message.

I remember that when I first came to the San Jose Mercury News there was a special room for breast pumping mothers off a certain bathroom. I never used that room. Still, as a young female employee, I appreciated what it signaled, an understanding of what some employees might need at certain times of their lives.

That message surely resonates with many men. But women are still typically the ones who bear the brunt of the transition to family life.

While other sectors such as the finance and pharmaceutical industries have offered generous parental leaves for years, they don’t match the level of the latest announcements from Silicon Valley, said Mary Tavarozzi, North America practice leader for absence and disability management at Towers Watson.

“No one is as far out in the generosity of these leaves as the tech companies,” she said.

Adobe, based in San Jose, Calif., with 13,000 employees globally, has a demographic breakdown much like its tech brethren, roughly 70 percent male and 30 percent female.

With those sorts of lopsided demographics, it may be easier for tech to be more generous to its female employees than other industries that have proportionally more female workers, Tavarozzi said.

But it’s not just about the benefits. Adobe and others are signaling that they are willing to rethink the traditional notion of work and life. They show they are trying to make the job work for the employee, rather than expecting the employee to make it work for the corporation.

The tech industry has always been on the forefront of the latest workplace trends as it tries to attract talent. But what makes it different this time around is the pursuit of a more diverse workforce. Companies can and should use their workplace policies to show they are serious about putting out the welcome mat to a wider range of people.
Michelle Quinn is a business columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

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