Netflix announced on Tuesday that it would offer its employees "unlimited" paid maternity and paternity leave. Under the new policy, parents are allowed to take as much time as they want—a full year, a mix of months off, switching back between part-time and full-time work—during their first year with a new child.
"We want employees to have the flexibility and confidence to balance the needs of their growing families without worrying about work or finances," Tawni Cranz, Netflix’s chief talent officer, wrote in a blog post announcing the change. "Parents can return part-time, full-time, or return and then go back out as needed. We’ll just keep paying them normally, eliminating the headache of switching to state or disability pay. Each employee gets to figure out what’s best for them and their family, and then works with their managers for coverage during their absences."
While capping the policy after a year isn't exactly the same thing as "unlimited"—as a colleague of mine who is also a parent pointed out, kids continue to have needs after their first birthday— Netflix's approach is groundbreaking.
It's also considerably more generous than what's currently on offer for the nearly 26 million private sector workers who don't have any paid leave at all. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one in four workers in the United States has no paid time off whatsoever. A handful of states and cities have instituted their own laws and the issue has become a centerpiece of the Democratic presidential primary, but universal paid leave has had virtually no traction in a Republican-controlled Congress that is convinced, despite available evidence, that it's bad for business.
What we have instead is the Family Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, which allows eligible employees—the policy applies to fewer than 50 percent of workers—to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child or a sick family member. But because three months without a paycheck is a non-starter for many working parents, the law does little to support the families who need it most.
In comparison, Netflix's flexible policy seems like a total dream. But it may come with some heavy caveats, based on how similar experiments have worked elsewhere and what we know about how sexism in the workplace operates.
"It sounds great on paper and no doubt that's part of the point. But the problem is, when you overlay it on this culture of overwork it can lead to very much the opposite effect," Dana Britton, the director of the Center for Women and Work and a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University, told Fusion. "You sort of have imposed a no-rules, sky-is-the-limit policy in a [professional context in] which face time is important and overwork is the norm."
As an example of what can happen when time away from work isn't clearly delineated, Britton pointed to a German tech company called Travis CI that adopted a set minimum of vacation days—25 in total—after starting out with a policy of unlimited time off. In short: the policy led to people self-policing their vacation days and, anxious about falling behind or being viewed as company dead weight, working through their time off.
In a post on why his company was switching from unlimited leave to a traditional vacation policy, Travis CI CEO Mathias Meyer wrote that unlimited leave left employees feelings uncertain about expectations. And because higher ups at the company weren't taking time off, workers could easily interpret that as an unstated policy against taking leave. So Meyer instituted a minimum number of days instead.
Jacob Kaplan-Moss, writing at Jacobin last year about the benefits and potential shortcomings of unlimited leave, also found his employer's use of the policy to be a mixed bag—one that potentially weighed more heavily on women, people of color, and other people who are underrepresented in fields like tech:
[U]nlimited vacation can also lead other employees to feel guilty about taking what they feel to be more than their peers, and could thus end up over-working because they don’t know what’s normal. This dovetails especially badly with impostor syndrome: people with impostor syndrome may feel like they “deserve” less vacation than their peers. Since impostor syndrome in technology is especially prevalent among minorities (women, people of color, etc.), this can create self-imposed structural inequalities around vacation.
Gender disparities in tech and implicit bias are particularly relevant when it comes to Netflix's experiment with unlimited parental leave. "The danger is that you're developing a mommy track," Britton said.
Women, statistically, are more likely to take parental leave than men. Research has shown that this can hurt their future earnings and negatively impact how their colleagues and employers view them, even though they're just using the time allowed to them.
A small study presented last year at the American Sociological Association found considerable disparities in how men and women were viewed after submitting requests for flexible work hours, as Gwen Moran reported at Fast Company.
After reviewing more than 640 requests, study author Christin Munsch, an assistant professor of sociology at Furman University, found that almost 70 percent of the study's participants would be likely to approve a man's request for flexible hours related to childcare whereas only 56 percent would approve a woman's request.
Perception of workers' likability differed by gender, too. As Moran notes, nearly one quarter of fathers making requests related to childcare were ranked as extremely likable while only 3 percent of women were. In fact, 15 percent of women who requested flex time in order to care for their kids were ranked "not at all" or "not very" likable while only 3 percent of men received that ranking.
So no matter how well-intentioned the unlimited parental leave policy may be, implicit bias—"doing the exact same thing but being perceived in different ways," Britton explains—could turn it into a potential penalty for working mothers.
In order to make unlimited leave more workable and avoid the traps some companies have fallen into, Kaplan-Moss offered a list of very reasonable suggestions, like having employers track time off and setting clear expectations about a minimum of how much time employees are supposed to use, "to ensure that it’s being distributed and managed fairly."
Unlimited leave is an experimental policy that may offer a lot to some working parents, but firm minimums may ultimately be the more family-friendly policy, Britton said.
"You're much better off with minimums, rather than saying take what you want. Because you're not really undoing that culture that says to work all the time to get ahead," Britton said. "Then it becomes a much less arbitrary, negotiable benefit."
But companies that genuinely want to incentivize leave and create a culture where it isn't just available but is actually permissible will have to adopt other policies to make that shift happen. Incentivizing leave for dads is one approach to ensure that women aren't penalized for taking time off. (Sweden has created a structure to encourage fathers to take leave—families lose one month of subsidies if dads don't take time off—that has led to some positive outcomes for women's workforce participation and earnings.)
And rethinking how we work is part of this process, too. "There are companies now that have imposed times after which email cannot be received, or periods in which you can't be contacted," Britton continued. "So in addition to minimums there would have to be relaxing of, or interruption of, this notion that you are constantly available to the company."
Unlimited parental leave is new terrain. Making it work, particularly for working mothers, will require some troubleshooting. Netflix may have good intentions with its new policy, but overcoming sexist double standards that hurt women's careers and wind up saddling mothers with most of the childcare responsibilities will take a lot more than that.
Netflix did not return Fusion's request for comment.