Corporate Gender Policies

Corporations and their gender policies seem to be all over the news these past two weeks. First, the good news. Last week, Netflix announced that it is starting a new family leave policy giving mothers and fathers unlimited paid time off for the first year after the birth or adoption of a child. [New York Times, 8-5-15] That’s right. A year of paid time off to care for a new child. And employees can return to work part-time or full-time; or come back to work, then decide to take additional time off if they need it. Amazing! Right? Well, yes and no.

Netflix’s new policy makes it the most generous in the nation, far exceeding the federal requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA, 1993), which requires only 12 weeks of unpaid leave for employees at companies over a certain size. High-tech firms have been among the more progressive companies in recent years: Facebook, for instance, offers four months of paid parental leave. Twitter offers 20 weeks of paid maternity leave (and 10 weeks of paid paternity leave), while Google offers 18 weeks of paid maternity leave (and 12 weeks of paid paternity leave) – begging the question, of course, as to why the benefits are not the same for mothers and fathers.

Paid parental leave sends an important gender message that caring for a new child is valued, that it is labor worth compensating, and that employees remain valuable assets to their companies even when they also have parenting obligations. However, because childcare responsibility is at the foundation of constructed gender roles, corporate policies that distinguish between men’s and women’s caregiving – granting women more time off because of their supposedly “natural” role as child care providers – perpetuate a problematic set of assumptions.

The new Netflix policy does the right thing by extending the same paid leave to mothers and fathers, though as Think Progress and others have pointed out, the real test will be if corporate culture allows men to fully embrace the benefit. What’s more, employees can find it difficult to actually take advantage of open-ended policies such as this one if managers don’t make it an explicit expectation. Kenneth Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute explains: “There’s been some work that has suggested that when situations are unstructured, people don’t necessarily have the push to make something happen.” [Think Progress, 8-5-15] But the bottom line is that Netflix could be moving the needle forward on family leave and rethinking the gender roles of the labor and responsibility of child care.

In other good news, Target announced this week that it would stop labeling its toy and bedding aisles by gender. [Post-Gazette, 8-11-15] As any parent can tell you, the actual signs on the end of the aisles might not be needed as one quick look tells you if you are about to enter a sea of pink/purple/sparkles or blue/green/camouflage. But it’s a step forward if we can move away from rigid gender coding.

In fact, in some ways it will be a step back – in time, that is. Toys in the 1960s and 70s appear to have been less explicitly marketed by gender. While there were still highly gendered expectations of play (boys playing with guns; girls with dolls), items such as roller skates and pogo sticks could be red or silver or black and sold to all children. The women’s movement also made dramatic inroads into play and childhood culture, including fashion, especially allowing girls freedom of movement in clothing choices that essentially mirrored boys. Evidence of this brief moment can be seen in these 1981 Lego ads, celebrating children and play, absent strict gender coding (I admit being partial to the girl on the right, as a redhead myself who wore pigtails for years and I’m pretty sure owned those exact shoes):

Lego-boy.girl LegoAd1981

But with the conservative backlash of the 1980s, new external markers of gender and gender roles regained prominence and everything from roller skates to Legos to bedroom decorations became rigidly colored and marketed. So ironically, we have work to do to “go back” to the more gender-neutral toys and ads of my own youth, in order to move the project of gender equity forward. The point, of course, is not just that girls ought to be allowed to play with Nerf darts and boys to sleep on My Little Pony sheets, but that we still have to shift the underlying gender roles that are being constructed and reconstructed through play.

And one final corporate gender policy this week: a new report finds that most major auto insurance companies raise their rates for widows. Ugh – seriously? It’s tempting to look at this nasty practice as a widow’s penalty – and that’s certainly how the headlines are presenting it – but the researchers didn’t design the study to examine widowed men, so we don’t know if this is a gendered effect, or insurance companies just behaving poorly towards widowed individuals in general. Either way, we say ugh. Particularly since Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America which conducted the study, explains: “Insurers claim that married people are safer drivers … But there are no publicly available studies that have shown that.” [Post-Gazette, 8-11-15]

What would happen if we let Netflix design the next round of insurance rates for State Farm?

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