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Opinion | Brigid Schulte

Military parental leave policy creates more problems than it fixes

Staff Sergeant Hyrum Durffy of the Utah National Guard was greeted by his family at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Dec. 14, 2015 after a deployment to Afghanistan.
Staff Sergeant Hyrum Durffy of the Utah National Guard was greeted by his family at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Dec. 14, 2015 after a deployment to Afghanistan. George Frey/Getty Images/File 2015

The new paid parental leave policy the Pentagon announced last week is part of a sweeping effort to overhaul the way the military recruits, retains, and promotes people to ensure the top talent stays and the so-called “Force of the Future” is ready to fight and win the nation’s wars most effectively.

It’s a good start. The plan, announced by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter last Thursday, doubles the amount of paid maternity leave offered to new mothers from six to 12 weeks. It adds four days to paid paternity leave, giving fathers up to 14 days. It calls for extended day care hours, from 12 to 14 hours a day, expanded adoption leave, more clean and private breast feeding facilities, egg and sperm freezing, and the ability of a military family to postpone a transfer for family reasons.

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But the new plan has drawn some criticism because it cuts back on the 18 weeks of paid maternity leave the Navy announced last summer. Still, there is an even bigger issue. In developing these new “family friendly” benefits, military leaders looked to the private sector, particularly high-tech companies, their stiffest competition in the fight for talent in the Millennial era. And that’s a mistake.

There’s no question that companies like Google and Facebook have some of the most generous paid parental leave policies in the United States. (That’s not hard to do, given that the United States is the only advanced economy in the world with no national paid leave policy, and only 13 percent of the civilian workforce has access to it.) But in an increasingly diverse age, high-tech companies and top corporate leadership ranks suffer from the same problem that the military does: They’re mostly white and male.

If you really want to recruit, retain, and promote the most talented women — and, increasingly, young Millennial men who want to be both dedicated to career and involved at home — a better place to start would be to develop policies that recognize the modern reality that both men and women work and have families. Why not offer equal paid leave to men and devise a family-sharing plan for the 84,000 dual military couples?

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Top leadership also needs to show by example that the culture supports equal policies as more than a PR move. That’s why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that he plans to take two months of paid parental leave in an industry famous for its never-ending work hours is so significant.

Otherwise, in the words of Marine Lt. Col. Chris Haynie, all the new Pentagon policies do is “reinforce the culture that the Department of Defense believes the woman’s place is with the child, and that men have less to do with early childhood development and rearing a family.”

Because it is that notion — that childcare and household duties are the primary responsibility of women rather than shared tasks for families — that often sidelines talented women. And, it absolves workplaces from doing the hard work of changing outdated cultures that often reward total devotion and long hours over talent and performance.

Already, retention rates for women in the military are 30 percent lower than for men across every branch of the service. Carter blamed that on “work and family conflict” — without recognizing that the unequal paid leave policies he’d just announced will only serve to intensify it.

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Talk to Chris Haynie’s wife, Jeannette, another marine lieutenant colonel, and it’s not hard to understand why.

Like most women in the military, Haynie, a Naval Academy graduate and Cobra attack helicopter pilot, wanted to fit in and be treated like one of the guys in her squadron. But the guys grumbled when she took six weeks of paid maternity leave that they didn’t get. They grumbled even more when she had to juggle inconvenient daycare hours and the occasional child sickness all on her own when Chris left for back-to-back deployments to Iraq. She soon found herself sidelined.

After 10 years on active duty, Haynie ditched her dream of becoming a general, left active duty in 2005, and joined the reserves. “The reason was squarely because of the way I was treated after my daughter was born and the way the service didn’t seem even remotely interested in retaining women.”

In Iraq and Afghanistan, women service members played critical roles in combat operations whether they were on patrol, flying across enemy lines, or running supply lines. And now, the Pentagon is opening up all ground combat roles to women. So if women are to be treated just like men when it comes to combat, then isn’t it about time to treat men just like women when it comes to family?


Brigid Schulte is director of the Better Life Lab at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., and author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No One has the Time.”

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