Netflix and the Flexibility Stigma

When the first reporter called me up with the news that Netflix had announced a year’s parental leave, I was thrilled. Researchers generally conclude that that’s close to the ideal amount of maternity leave (40 weeks). The twelve weeks provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act is clearly too short. A 2005 study found that American babies whose mothers were back at work within 12 weeks were less likely to get doctors’ visits and immunizations on time, and less likely to be breastfed (which helps build immunity and is particularly important in families with allergies). Exclusive reliance on breastfeeding for at least six months prevents respiratory infections, bacterial meningitis, and other illnesses, according to the same study, which also found more behavioral problems and lower cognitive test scores at age 4 when moms returned to work before within 12 weeks. At a more intuitive level, if you have a kid, do you remember what it’s like at the three-month mark? It’s still a “round-the-clock slumber party,” as a bizarrely cheerful friend of mine once called it. Your stitches are healed but you’re strung out and just exhausted.

Maternity leaves longer than a year are not ideal because they tend to reinforce breadwinner/homemaker gender roles and increase women’s economic vulnerability. Some evidence suggests that these problems arise with maternity leaves as short as 18 months—much less the 100 or more day leaves that exist some places in Europe.

I talked that first reporter through what Netflix should do to implement a successful parental leave policy. Two sets of meetings. Not complicated.

To ensure a smooth off-ramp, three meetings are ideal. During the first meeting right after the pregnancy is announced, congratulate the prospective parent, and reassure him or her that they are expected to take their full leave. At the second meeting, about three months before the leave is to begin, do a full inventory of the parent’s work, develop a transition plan, and communicate with colleagues to whom work will be transitioned. Then, shortly before the baby is due, finalize the transition plan, making sure that each person is aware of work that is being transitioned to them, and set out how the necessary information will be transmitted to ensure a smooth transition.

An on-ramp protocol consists of two meetings. Several weeks before the leave-taker returns to work, his or her manager should develop a ramp-up plan, ideally on a gradual return-to-work basis. This plan should be communicated on the leave-taker’s first day back to work, with a check-up every two weeks thereafter until the ramp-up is complete.

All good?

Not really. The next reporter told me what Nexflix was really offering: unlimited time off during the first year. That’s quite a different proposition than a yearlong leave. A yearlong leave sends the message that all eligible workers are expected to take a year. Allowing “unlimited leave” during the first year is perfect – but it’s not good.

It’s perfect because it allows each family to figure out what combination and leave and part-time work works best for their family. This fits well with Netflix’s ideal of “freedom and responsibility.”

What’s not good is its ambiguity.

Research shows that, when men seek workplace flexibility, they tend to be given lower job evaluations than men who don’t. They also are seen as having fewer of the “masculine” behaviors highly valued in men (has business sense, high self-esteem, career-oriented, has leadership ability, competitive) and more of “feminine” behaviors prescribed for men (insecure, gullible, uncertain, weak, indecisive). A second study found that men who take leave are seen as higher in “feminine” traits (weak, uncertain) and lower is “masculine” traits (competitive, ambitious).

This flexibility stigma affects women as well as men, when they take leave or adopt a flexible schedule.

I wonder if Nexflix is aware of this research, and whether it is taking steps to counter the flexibility stigma. If not, its parental leave may be unusable. That could prove a moral-drainer, could fuel attrition of parents from the company, and could leave it open to lawsuits. After all, if the flexibility stigma for men is a femininity stigma, then it can show up as evidence of gender discrimination in an employment discrimination lawsuit under Title VII. Let’s hope Netflix is up on this research and taking proactive steps to avoid unintended consequences.

Joan C. Williams
Described as having “something approaching rock star status” in her field by The New York Times Magazine, Joan C. Williams has played a central role in reshaping the conversation about work, gender, and class over the past quarter century. Williams is a Distinguished Professor of Law, Hastings Foundation Chair, and Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Read More >>

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