Women

Iceland's Gender Policy Holds a Lesson for Google

Instead of trying to police the gender debate, tech companies should mandate paternal leave.

Google talks the talk.

Photographer: Lucas Schifres/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Let others discuss whether it was legal, or smart, for Google to fire an engineer for voicing uncomfortable views on gender diversity. It's perhaps more important that the valid points in James Damore's manifesto aren't drowned out by the chorus of condemnation.

Google’s Diversity Battle Goes Public

"Feminism has made great progress in freeing women from the female gender role, but men are still very much tied to the male gender role," Damore, a former senior developer at Google, wrote in the memo that made him the darling of conservative websites and cost him his job. "If we, as a society, allow men to be more 'feminine,' then the gender gap will shrink, although probably because men will leave tech and leadership for traditionally feminine roles."

Damore used that point to argue that there are non-discriminatory ways to bridge the gender gap, which may not all benefit Google with its workaholic culture. He was half-right. Making sure men take on the "female" roles that have caused the gender pay gap removes unfair competition in "traditionally male" jobs and narrows the pay gap without any dangerous economic effects.

Just ask Icelanders, who have the narrowest gender gap in the world today, according to the World Economic Forum -- meaning that men and women are almost equally represented in the workforce, including leadership and tech positions, and receive nearly equal pay. Iceland is also the world's 12th richest country ranked by per capita economic output (taking into account purchasing power parity).

First among the reasons for gender gaps at work, women often forego faster careers and higher pay so they can spend more time with their kids. Even though they are no longer explicitly expected to do that by society, companies or most male partners, men are still explicitly expected to do the opposite -- that is, to keep working overtime and trying to get ahead even after their children are born. That gives men a competitive advantage they may not necessarily treasure or even want.

Google has one of the most progressive parental leave policies in the U.S. It gives birth mothers 18 weeks of paid maternity leave. Beyond that, the "primary caregiver" (gender not specified) gets up to 12 weeks paid "baby-bonding leave." The "non-primary caregiver" receives seven weeks. It doesn't take a genius capable of landing a Google job to figure out how these benefits are mostly used in real life. The mother gets her 30 weeks. The father gets seven, if he can afford it without falling behind on whatever project he's involved in. But even if the father signed up as the "primary caregiver," the mother would still get more paid time off.

That's not how it has worked in Iceland since 2000. The Nordic country's parental leave law gives each parent three months' non-transferable parental leave within the first 24 months since a child's birth or adoption. Both parents also get a joint three-month allotment which they can divide up as they please. There's no hypocritical talk of primary and secondary caregivers: Both parents are equal before the law.

In 2013, the latest year for which numbers are available, 99 percent of women and 91.4 percent of men took parental leave in Iceland. But, despite the equal legal treatment, women took more days then men: 182.3 compared with 87.9. Men's take-up decreased because, as part of its recovery program after the 2008 financial crisis, the government cut the maximum pay parents received from a special fund during parental leave. This reflects the inflexibility of the male role which Damore mentioned in his memo: Even in egalitarian Iceland, society still expects the man to be the primary provider and the secondary parent. 

Now that the pay ceiling has climbed back up to 500,000 Icelandic krona ($4,770) per month from a low of 300,000 krona, one might expect fathers to take more days to spend with their kids. Research shows that children benefit from more time with their dads -- both in terms of intellectual development and physical health.

Google doesn't have the financial constraints of the island nation of 334,000 people. Iceland's government spent about $2.7 billion last year, including $88 million from the parental leave fund. Google, with 72,000 employees, made $6.3 billion of net profit in its latest quarter. It can afford to pay full salary to fathers to take as much time off as mothers, and it can actually take a further step, one that Iceland hasn't taken, mandating paternal leave. Yes, that's right -- it can tell fathers to take time off when children are born or adopted.

That would eliminate the problem that occurs in many countries when they try to follow Iceland's example. According to a 2016 brief from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development:

if men and women are roughly equally likely to take leave, employers will be less reluctant to hire women of childbearing-age. However, fathers are often hesitant to take leave as they fear the career implications. In Japan and Korea, for example, one year of paid leave is reserved just for the father—the most generous allowance in the OECD -- but very few fathers take advantage of it.

If Google and other tech companies are serious about bridging their huge gender gaps, hiring a vice president of diversity, trying to police the internal conversation and even fighting actual gender biases may all be less effective than rooting out child-related inequality. Even men who would rather code than get up at night to feed a crying baby might end up grateful.

And who knows, perhaps more of these Google fathers' kids, of both genders, might end up in challenging engineering roles. It all starts with listening to different viewpoints, even jarring ones.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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