Parental Work Perks That Don’t Work

Working Mother, James Tutor, November 2007 iStock
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It was hot news earlier this year that more and more companies are providing egg-freezing services for their employees and increasingly, millennial women are carefully planning the parenthood phase of their lives by taking these companies up on these services. It’s also hot news whenever a tech giant or unicorn offers breast milk delivery or extends parental leave.

But there’s a catch to all of these work perks: many of them don’t work or don’t work as planned. Egg freezing may result in a nasty surprise for hopeful moms to be, as there’s nowhere near a 100% success rate for the procedure. Extended parental leaves look great on paper, but in reality employees rarely use all that extra time. And while IBM and other tech companies are sending breast milk home when you’re stuck at the office or travelling for work, the necessity of breast milk delivery is a result of moms not being able to take full maternity leave.

As TIME pointed out, “Although egg-freezing is marketed to anxious women as an ‘insurance policy,’ there are not yet any major studies about success rates. And initial numbers obtained exclusively by TIME suggest that in 2012 and 2013, only 24% of egg thaws resulted in a live birth.”

With a success rate under 25%, millennials shouldn’t be putting all of their eggs into the egg-freezing basket — and companies shouldn’t be encouraging them to do so. Egg-freezing may appear to be a benign work perk, allowing young women to focus on their careers, it has a darker implication: that employers should have  say in when you have children. Not now, is the implication. Perhaps when you move on to another company. Perhaps when you retire.

Similarly, breast milk delivery service has the potential to make working mothers’ life much easier. Combined with flex time, it could result in better work-life balance, and mothers being able to spend more time with their children during a crucial stage of development. But breast milk delivery without flex time or even paid time off sends a very different message: that there is no compelling reason to take time off; you can mom from the office while maintaining your productivity.

Even when they do work, how useful are these parental perks, anyway? Rich Bells, writing at Fast Company, recently pointed out that it’s human relationships that account for most of happiness and satisfaction. Far more important than the actual content of the perks or the size of your raise, is the quality of your work friendships. Do you have a good friend at work? Well, your day just got a bit better. Do you respect your colleagues and enjoy collaborating with them? Great! Does your manager understand and respect your basic human needs — for rest, leisure, time with family — and set boundaries between work and life? Now we’re talking.

Although tech companies and the HR community are paying more attention to parenthood and work, many are neglecting the human element. As part of a Think Differently event this summer, sponsored by, Survey Monkey polled working mothers about work perks that would really impact their lives. Respondents cited health care, paid leave and flexibility as their work-heart’s desires.

“33% of all moms working full-time said affordable health insurance (including dental) was the most helpful family-friendly benefit that their organization provided. Flexible work schedules, paid sick leave and the ability to take leave for a sick child and paid vacation time followed as the top five benefits. However, only 77% of organizations these parents work for at full-time offer health insurance, only 40% offer flexible work schedules, and 67% allow parents to take leave for a sick child.”

Respondents also emphasized that company culture was key: having an understanding and flexible manager was the difference between effective, usable perks, and perks that are just for show.

via Survey Monkey


The focus on egg freezing and breast milk delivery, besides not even being on respondents’ priorities list, also skews parental benefits toward working biological mothers — where are adoptive mothers and fathers, both biological and adoptive in all of this? There has been a slow but marked shift in societal expectations of fatherhood since the 1960s. Fathers spend more time parenting and less time at the office, but many companies have been slow to recognize this. Even when paid leave is available, fathers are often discouraged from using it.

According to the New York Times, “Erin Reid, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Boston University, who gained access to workers in a large consulting firm, uncovered numerous instances in which fathers were discouraged from adjusting their schedules to accommodate parental responsibilities, coupled with a kind of disbelief that they would even entertain the idea.”

Fathers are challenging parental leave policies and discrimination in court — and they’re succeeding. Not only are companies discovering that no or shorter leave for fathers is often legally indefensible, experts are pointing to deeper, debilitating effects of such policies. Discriminating against fathers who seek work life balance also, thanks to the terrible circular logic of discrimination, impacts working mothers. The NYT points out, “by discouraging men from taking child-rearing seriously, they say, employers can effectively add to the workplace stigma of women who shoulder these responsibilities.”

What good is a work perk that you can’t put to work? As Anne-Marie Slaughter said in a recent Chatelaine interview, too often working mothers who press for work-life balance are made to feel like failures or “traitors to the cause,” and working fathers are “made to feel like wimps.” While flashy work perks may get you headlines and attention from candidates, they won’t go as far as something much simpler: flexibility and understanding.

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