Creating a Paid Parental leave Policy at WKU (and Beyond)

By: Laura Thompson
On August 3, 2012, at the 20-week anatomy scan, I counted 10 fingers, 10 toes, and listened to the healthy heart. The next day I drove 570 miles from Savannah, GA to Bowling Green, KY to start my new job at Western Kentucky University.

A few months earlier, I shared news of my pregnancy with my new boss and was informed there was no campus-wide parental leave policy. Each person was expected to “work it out” with their department head. My own compassionate chair determined I could teach one less course that spring. For the other two, I taught a weekly graduate course and an undergraduate course that took place in the second half of the semester.

After our baby was born, my brain didn’t work well, I forgot things, and I was often late or rushing. I was tired, stressed and struggling with undiagnosed post-partum depression. So, while my boss crafted a fair offer, this was still one of the toughest semesters I experienced. A couple years later, after having my second child, I was again offered a course reduction but this time, it was one that I had earned based on extra work I had done, so I did not receive any extra support from the university. Time I had originally intended to use to advance my research agenda was instead used to care for my new baby.

Having two babies on the tenure track, I became known as the person to talk to if faculty were expecting a child. I realized the “deals” women across the university were getting were disparate at best; some were good, but many weren’t. No one was granted a full semester off, and men and same sex partners were left out of the equation altogether.

As a family sociologist, I’ve taught hundreds of students about the importance of paid parental leave, arguing that it is a policy solution to a variety of gendered and family problems. When I became chair of the university committee on faculty issues, I made it my goal to get a 16-week paid parental leave policy in place – and we did it! Faculty, men or women, for birth or adoption, could take 16-weeks off within one year of the birth. Leave time could be taken as one semester (spring or fall) or across two semesters. Our policy is the first of any university in our state and the full policy can be found here.

The guiding philosophy during policy development is to put the employee first, reduce stress, and increase morale. Having a full semester seemed to be the best way to do achieve that goal, in part because the International Labour Organization, in accordance with the World Health Organization, recommends that maternity leave shouldn’t be less than 14 weeks and optimally should be 18 weeks.

Here are steps to take to make this a reality at your institution.

  • Network with people who can help your cause. Get on committees that influence policy change (Senate, for example), have meetings with administrators about the value of a policy like this, and make friends with people in HR. The key is to make the argument that it isn’t just good for employees, but it is good for the university. Research shows employees are more likely to return to work and be more productive upon return if they have access to paid parental leave.
  • Frame it as an equity issue – if there is one policy for the whole university, then everyone gets the same benefit – no “deals” that are different from one department to another and women, men, and same-sex partners are included.
  • Show the administrators that it will make them look good and will raise morale.
  • Reference research. The infographic below based on my research shows men and women need time off and aren’t getting enough. Research also shows that employers benefit from offering employees more robust leave packages. These packages encourage loyalty and increase productivity upon employees’ return. The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics offers great support, too.
  • Make an informed argument. We are scholars; we know research. Do a literature review; the literature is clear that paid parental leave is good for everyone.
  • Be patient but persistent.

    The bottom line is that individual employers should not have to offer this benefit, but we do not have a national policy in the United States. The US needs to catch up with our industrialized counterparts. While I encourage you to secure paid parental leave policies at your institutions, we can do more, regardless of where we are living and teaching. Talk to others about parental often and stress the universal gains. Vote. Email and call your legislators. Write public blogs and letters to the editor. Mothers need more support.