Melanie Fairchild and Jessica Dole
courtesy GBBN Architects Melanie Fairchild and Jessica Dole

Ours is a story too many parents share: Seven weeks after the birth of our children, we had to return to work.

The experience was heartbreaking. We were still healing, desperately sleep-deprived, emotionally drained, and the bills kept coming. At the time, we were at different firms in different industries—account management and human resources—and “maternity leave” consisted of six to eight weeks of short-term disability, covering between 70% and 80% of our usual pay. Returning to work so soon was incredibly difficult, accompanied by pangs of guilt, but what else could we do? That was more than a decade ago, while in different industries, but in the architecture profession, these policies remain typical, and the U.S. at large is falling behind.

Currently, Congress is considering only four weeks of mandated parental and medical leave, a fraction of what federal workers receive (12 weeks) as well as the majority of rest of the globe—12 weeks at a minimum but often more than 24. So, when we announced on a recent company video call that we had succeeded in overhauling GBBN’s parental leave policy, it was extremely gratifying knowing it will be better for our colleagues. The firm’s new policy includes 12 weeks of fully paid parental leave for birthing parents; six weeks for non-birthing parents; flexible transitions back to work; and fully paid bereavement leave for pregnancy loss for employees, partners, and surrogates. On that video call, we were met with cheers.

Architecture’s Deficit

Reliable data on parental leave across the profession is scarce. A 2016 report (“Diversity in the Profession of Architecture”) from The American Institute of Architects pointed to the difficulty of starting a family as a key reason why women leave the profession before rising to leadership positions. A 2021 report from AIA and the Center for WorkLife Law at University of California, Hastings College of Law substantiates these experiences through a survey of 1,346 architectural professionals. It describes how “being a mother, getting pregnant, or just being a woman of a certain age can trigger strong negative competence and commitment assumptions at work.”

According to the report, 64% of those surveyed say that women’s opportunities diminish after having children, and 59% report that women’s pay is worse. Parental leave is connected to disproportionate attrition rates that women experience as they pursue licensure—women account for roughly 50% of architecture graduates but only 20% of licensed architects—and disparities in industry leadership, outcomes that often reinforce gender inequalities. Better parental leave policies can help retain women, enabling them to advance to leadership positions, and help dismantle workplace inequities.

A Critical Cultural Shift

Parental leave is one step toward a broader cultural shift around work-life balance and gender norms. The 2018 Equity in Architecture survey of 14,360 architecture professionals found widespread evidence of “flexibility stigma.” More than two-thirds of those surveyed feared that using benefits like family leave would jeopardize a promotion. The data is clear: For this kind of policy to be effective, firm leadership must champion it. This is one reason why our firm stresses flexibility for everyone. With flexible schedules, hybrid work arrangements, and generous PTO, we hope to reduce the stigma associated with parental leave. The Hastings report offers guidance on how to overcome this stigma. We also must stress that this is not a “women’s issue.” It is paramount that we call this parental leave rather than “maternity leave.” Communication around the policy is intended to set the expectation that all parents should use it. While we recognize that the experience is distinct for birthing parents, we hope that this policy will expand our understanding of parenting, shifting away from gendered assumptions about women as primary caregivers.

The fact that nearly 1.8 million women have dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic largely due to caretaking responsibilities illustrates the power of these expectations. Excellent resources are available for firms considering expanding parental leave—the Center for Parental Leave Leadership’s case study of Portland, Ore.-based Bora Architects, for one, drills down into the numbers and strategy of the firm’s policy. We encourage you to explore policy options because, while our expanded policy will give us a welcome recruitment advantage in the coming years, we’d be even happier to lose that advantage within an industry where generous parental leave has become the norm.

This article first appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of ARCHITECT.

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