When Jocelyn Leavitt chose Hopscotch’s parental leave policy, she thought carefully about how to design a benefit that was generous and cost-effective.
As a small, 10-person coding startup, Hopscotch doesn’t have the capital to offer an expansive leave policy like the ones coming out of Silicon Valley, Leavitt says. So she opted for up to six weeks of paid time off. Even that will help her employees, says the founder of the New York City-based open-source app.
“Parental leave is one of the great sources that can equalize the gender disparities in work,” says Leavitt.
In the last year, Facebook, Microsoft and Netflix have all announced sharply improved family benefits including up to a year of leave for mothers and fathers. With these announcements, media outlets have started to declare the tech sector as the “most radical” on the issue.
Anecdotal evidence suggests New York tech companies are not emulating their Silicon Valley rivals. A survey of local companies found some startups offer no leave at all, while others provide a very modest six to 12 weeks of paid time off. One provided parental leave only to its paid female staff.
New York tech leaders say they can only afford to offer limited policies. But all agreed having a policy helps attract and retain talent and increase productivity.
“There is not enough tech talent to go around at this point,” says Erik Grimmelmann, president and CEO of the New York Technology Council, a non-profit industry association focused on advancing the city’s tech sector. “Companies are moving in this direction because they want to be attractive places to work.”
For example, creative marketing agency MRY provides female workers a combined leave benefit: a total of 12 weeks, six of which is paid through disability insurance and the other paid by the company. Hopscotch, meanwhile, offers four to six weeks fully paid leave to women and men, as well as disability insurance that workers can tap once they’ve extinguished leave days.
“It was important for us as a female-founded and -led company that we were deliberate and thoughtful about how we constructed maternity leave in a way that makes sense for everybody,” says Leavitt.
Some Silicon Alley startups mix paid and unpaid leave. Two companies, Cover and CorporateRewards, comply in part with the Family and Medical Leave Act — the 1993 bill that mandates 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for certain employees — despite each having less than the minimum 50 employees that triggers the law’s mandates. CorporateRewards, a recognition and incentive program, offers a total of 12 weeks, half paid and half unpaid, while Cover, a mobile restaurant payment app, gives three months paid and unlimited unpaid leave. Digital weight-management company Selvera Wellness offers 12 weeks unpaid plus six weeks paid leave.
“[Offering parental leave] is just showing a sign of the times,” says Joanne Gadson, CorporateRewards’ head of human resources. “Marriages are different now. Dads are much more involved than they were back in the day. Both parents are working these days.”
These policies are in stark difference to what’s provided at tech giants Facebook or Netflix — multibillion-dollar companies with thousands of employees and multiple office hubs. New parents at Netflix get unlimited paid time off for a year, while new birth and adoptive parents at Facebook get four months. Microsoft now gives new moms 20 weeks and dads 12 weeks, both paid; at Adobe, it’s 26 weeks and 16 weeks, respectively.
While these major firms have a strong New York presence, their origins are in the Valley, where other Fortune 500 companies such as Apple and eBay surround them.
In New York City, though, the majority of tech startups are not large enough or profitable enough to offer what the big tech names can.
“Some of the larger companies have more flexibility because they have power in numbers in a way that some really young, early stage companies don’t have,” says Mark Tanner, the 24-year-old CEO of Movo, a digital fitness product company.
Movo doesn’t offer paid leave because his six-person startup is fledgling, says Tanner. Jacob Katsoff, a new father and founder of AppCow, says he doesn’t offer the benefit for the same reason. But both executives says they’re open to offering leave in the future, as well as exploring work-from-home arrangements for workers with kids.
Other New York City-based tech startups that offer no parental leave include Moonheart Entertainment, R.F. Madison and Neighborhoodr — all of which are new companies.
“When a new company is starting, they often start with no benefits and then work their way up over time to offering benefits that, if not comparable to the big companies, are at least reasonably good,” says Grimmelmann.
New York’s state disability program, paid for through payroll deductions, offers up to $170 a week to mothers, usually limited to four to six weeks prior to delivery and four to six weeks after birth. City officials including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Public Advocate Letitia James support the expansion of this program through the currently stalled New York State Paid Family Leave Insurance Act, introduced by state Democrats in the Senate and Assembly, which would give all New Yorkers 12 paid weeks off a year for parental, family or medical leave. The state Assembly passed the bill this year—and prior versions in 2005, 2007 and 2014—but it died in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Despite no state law mandating paid parental leave, tech executives say offering the benefit ensures worker loyalty and work/life balance.
“If you give that benefit to your employees, that gets paid back with their commitment and appreciation for the company,” says Jose ‘Caya’ Cayasso, co-founder and CEO of Slidebean, an online presentation platform founded in 2013.
Slidebean offers its six female staffers four months paid leave — one month before birth and three months after — while its three male workers receive one week paid leave. The policy is modeled after the law in Costa Rica, says Cayasso, where Slidebean started and continues to partially operate. The company’s main operations relocated to New York City last year.
The struggles within Silicon Alley when it comes to parental leave reflect broader disparities facing women, and child-rearing men, in the tech industry at large.
Although women make up 59 percent of the US workforce, according to the US Census Bureau, several reports released last year by major companies indicate women only make up 30 percent of tech employees. In New York City, a recent Center for an Urban Future report puts that number at 40 percent.
Research suggests that a mix of factors causes this disparity between women and men in tech to persist. In the past, women have cited the gender pay gap, limited job advancement, a lack of family-friendly policies and frat-boy culture as reasons for either not entering tech or leaving it all together.
Leavitt says women tend to leave the tech workforce because they feel pressure to either not take maternity leave or to stay at home as a caretaker rather than their career. This is compacted, she says, by structural bias, in which tech employers view women’s potential productivity contributions as lesser — and more expensive — to men.
Official leave policies, though, have little impact if the workplace culture means few workers take advantage of them.
“You can have the best policy on paper, but the real question is, who uses it, for how long and with what results,” says Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values at Work, a national coalition network for family-friendly workplace policies. “If I use it and then go backwards on the promotion track, I may accept that price. But is that a price anyone should take?”
Stereotypes may play into the lack of better policies. The prevalent Mark Zuckerberg archetype encourages investors to fund companies run by young, white, childless men rather than backing companies led by more diverse executives, who have less resources for broader policies, says Mark Egerman, Cover’s CEO and co-founder. Investors buy into “fictional representations” of what a successful tech company should look like —as Egerman says, “late night coding sessions of 22-year-olds with no codependents, no debt, all wearing the same hoodie” — thus driving the disparity in which startups get backers, and which don’t.
“There’s strong evidence that female-led companies do much better than male-led companies in this state and have a harder time raising money,” he says. A recent study from Quantopian, a Boston-based algorithmic trading platform, found that returns to investors at women-led Fortune 1000 companies were three times the returns at male-run S&P 500 businesses. “This is going to be an ongoing problem as long as we have false narratives about success, about disruption, about technology.”
But, says Grimmelmann, the tech workforce is changing, which more and more companies are beginning to realize. The employees who entered the tech field five years ago are now beginning a stage in their life where they’re planning or starting families or at least considering a family a possibility, he says.
In order to attract and retain talent, as well as increase productivity, tech companies should move to implement parental leave policies that reflect the changing work pool, he adds.
“As roles in the family become equal, parental leave will become more important,” says Grimmelmann. “I predict if they don’t offer this sort of leave, they’ll fall behind and realize they’re at a competitive disadvantage.”
Despite steps forward at Facebook and its Silicon Valley brethren, though, part-time, hourly and contract workers often aren’t privy to leave benefits. A shattering In These Times report published in August found that, because of these lapses in policy, nearly one in four women return to work within two weeks of giving birth.
“It’s encouraging to see tech companies take a lead on the matter,” says Phoebe Taubman, senior staff attorney at A Better Balance, a work and family legal center in New York City. “But it doesn’t eliminate the need for a broader public policy.”