Washington state’s recently passed parental-leave law could help women stay in the workforce. And — by extending paid leave to fathers as well as mothers — proponents hope it will also shift attitudes more broadly about women at work, as similar policies have done in Germany.

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BERLIN — Anna Steffeney wanted to have the same bonding experience when her second son was born as she’d had with the first: a year off from work to begin to raise her child.

She worked for Microsoft when both were born, in 2008 and 2012, holding similar positions in finance and working for equally supportive managers. But to ensure that time with her second son, she had to quit.

The difference? Steffeney had moved from a job in Germany to one in Redmond.

When she lived in Munich, German law mandated that her job would be protected during her yearlong leave. In the U.S., she was guaranteed only five months of job protection — 18 weeks through a state program and the rest by Microsoft policy.

“I said, ‘I can’t do that, I need to have the same experience with my son,’ ” Steffeney said. “I weighed my options and I came up with one: to quit.”

Germany’s family-leave benefits

Months of paid family leave for new parents: 12, or 14 if father takes at least 2 months off

Percentage of fathers taking family leave in 2006: 3

Percentage of fathers taking family leave in 2015 after benefit reform: 35

Source: German Institute for Economic Research

That early bonding time has carried over into her relationships with her sons even today, she says, and helped grow her confidence as a mom and businesswoman.

Keeping women in the workforce

U.S. family-leave benefits

Months of paid family leave for new parents required by federal law: 0

Weeks of paid family leave for new parents in Washington state, starting in 2020: 12

Number of states offering paid family leave: 5, plus D.C.

Source: State websites

Even when they’re not looking for such expansive benefits, women in the U.S. leave the workforce in droves when they have children — about 43 percent of mothers will leave or take a career break at some point. That so-called “care penalty” hinders women’s careers and causes employers to lose valuable staff, said Nancy Jensen, who runs ReBoot Seattle, a program to help women re-enter the workforce.

Washington state’s recently passed parental-leave law could be a step toward enabling women with young children to remain in the workforce. The law, which takes effect in 2020, provides for 12 weeks of paid leave for each parent after a child is born, adopted or placed with a family.

Though not as generous as Germany’s family-leave benefits, the new state law incorporates a key factor that the Germans also added relatively recently — incentives encouraging fathers to take family leave. Washington will offer the same paid leave to men as to women.

Proponents hope these equal benefits will shift attitudes about child care and encourage women to stay in the workforce. Germany’s experience shows how that could work.

Overhauls in Germany

Germany has been working on the workplace gender issue for decades: Now 31 percent of senior management positions in German companies are held by women, although they make up 46 percent of the workforce, and the wage gap between men and women doing the same job is 6 percent.

The U.S. gaps are even larger: Women hold 26.5 percent of senior manager jobs but form nearly 47 percent of the workforce, and they earn 20 percent less than men.

Germany’s family-leave policies have long applied to both mothers and fathers, but slowly the government began to realize that the well-intentioned plans were actually reinforcing gender roles at work and at home.

The policies allowed for up to three years off work, but with such low benefits that it was unattractive to have more than one parent take advantage of family leave — and so it was usually the woman who took leave.

Germany overhauled its family-leave policy in 2007, giving couples an additional two months of partially paid leave when both parents share the time off. To stretch the combined paid leave from 12 months to 14, fathers must take at least two months off.

Advocates of the change hoped it would prompt a gradual shift in attitudes and encourage more women to return to work, faster, and more men to assume a caretaker role.

So far, results hint at some success. The number of fathers taking time off work when they have a child has increased more than tenfold — from 3 to 35 percent. Also, about 15 percent of women return to work after a year, compared with 7 percent before 2007. But the divide is still clear. The majority of men taking leave take only the minimum two months.

Still, the reform had the intended effect. “We’ve seen that it impacts attitudes toward gender roles in society as a whole,” said Katharina Wrohlich, a research associate at the German Institute for Economic Research.

Shifting attitudes

Many Germans are still coming to terms with the idea of fathers as primary caretakers.

Lisa Klagge, manager at popular Berlin bakery Zeit für Brot, decided she would return to work quickly when she found out she was expecting. She earns more than the child’s father so it made sense, she said, and besides, she wanted to go back to her job after her eight-week maternity leave.

Her co-workers were happy with her quick return to work. But her partner’s co-workers, finding out he decided to take 10 months of leave, were a bit bewildered.

“Lots of women are sort of shocked about it, that I would go back to work so quickly,” Klagge said through a translator. “It’s typical here in Germany that the women stay home.”

Friends and colleagues in their 20s and 30s were more understanding. Older people seemed more surprised, she said.

But that reaction, too, could be changing. Grandparents with grandchildren born after the 2007 reform were more accepting of women focusing on their careers and men focusing on caretaking, according to a recent study from the German Institute for Economic Research.

It’s now more socially accepted if a new father decides to take two months of leave, said Wrohlich, who conducted the study. “If it becomes more and more normal for men to take leave, of course then it cannot be such a penalty anymore for women to take leave.”

Caregiver penalty

For women in the U.S., that penalty can define their career trajectories. It shows up not just in terms of salaries and earning potential, but also in the positions women hold, said Steffeney, who now is CEO of Leave­Logic, a Seattle startup that helps companies implement paid family leave.

The U.S. is the only developed country in the world not to have a national paid maternity-leave policy, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Women face increasing wage gaps as they enter their 30s, Steffeney said, largely because they are stereotyped by their caregiving qualities rather than recognized as executives and managers.

Steffeney’s husband was able to also take a year off work when their first son was born, in Germany. In the U.S., he did not have access to paid leave.

“The biggest way to increase women’s participation in the workforce is to have equal access to paid family-leave benefits,” she said. “What you do is change the bias in the workplace that women are the caregivers.”

Microsoft’s global overhaul

Gender disparities have been hitting especially close to home for tech companies, which are embroiled in debates about their majority-male workforces. Some argue that improved benefits for women, and equal benefits for all parents, could reduce attrition among female employees.

Microsoft upped its U.S. parental-leave policy for nonbirth parents in late 2015, offering 12 fully paid weeks to fathers, partners who don’t give birth, or parents who adopt. Birth mothers also got an increase, from 12 weeks to 20 paid weeks. So far, more than 95 percent of parents who are eligible for the expanded leave times have been taking it, said Fred Thiele, Microsoft’s general manager of global benefits.

“We wanted to really communicate the equal nature of the parenting responsibilities,” he said. “We’ve heard that’s had a positive effect on the work environment.”

Microsoft’s benefits are already more expansive than those mandated by the state in 2020, so Thiele doesn’t expect big changes. But the company is ready to make whatever tweaks necessary to be in compliance.

Microsoft, which has employees in 110 countries, is embarking on a family-leave overhaul across the globe, introducing expanded policies tailored to each country’s standards.

“We did independent research and found the policies lead to more well-adjusted employees and attract and retain qualified female employees,” Thiele said. “We want to indicate or signal through our policy that parenting is for both parents, not just for one.”

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The minimum amount of paid leave globally will be 20 weeks for birth moms and six weeks for nonbirth parents once Microsoft finishes rolling out the policies early next year.

Zillow’s experience

Seattle online real-estate company Zillow Group has already started to see the effects of an expanded leave policy it enacted two years ago, which gives birth mothers 16 weeks of paid leave, and partners and adoptive parents eight weeks.

Nearly all new fathers are taking leave, said Dan Spaulding, the company’s chief people officer.

It’s hard to measure the direct effects on female employees of Zillow Group’s leave program, though the percentage of women in senior leadership roles across the group did increase from 26 to 37 percent last year. Spaulding attributes some of that to the family-leave policies.

The biggest change, though, is the way employees discuss mother’s and father’s roles in raising a child, said Spaulding, who was able to take only a week off from a previous job when his daughter was born 12 years ago.

“What’s different now is there is a conversation, particularly with male employees who are going to be fathers, there is now a common question of ‘what are you going to do for your parental leave? How are you going to take it? Are you excited for it?’ ” he said. “That was not the conversation I was having in my career 12 years ago.”

Although Washington state’s family-leave policy is not as generous as Germany’s, even a little bit of paid leave can encourage women to keep working, said Steffeney, just by removing a bit of the pressure to find child care for infants.

But longer leave terms can produce a bigger benefit, as tech giant Google discovered recently. When the company expanded its paid maternity policy from 12 to 18 weeks, “the rate at which new mothers quit fell 50%,” YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki tweeted in January 2016.

Anna Steffeney, with her sons, is a CEO at a Seattle startup. The state’s new parental leave will take some pressure off finding child care, Steffeney says.  (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Anna Steffeney, with her sons, is a CEO at a Seattle startup. The state’s new parental leave will take some pressure off finding child care, Steffeney says. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

More left to go

The legislation passed by the state in July set out a procedure to fund family leave through weekly paycheck contributions made by both employers and employees. Companies will be able to opt out of the program if they provide employees with family-leave benefits comparable to the state’s leave policy.

But a lot is left to figure out — including how parents will apply for the leave, exactly how much employers will be involved, how they might modify their current leave benefits, and what the bureaucratic administration will look like.

Beyond these details, many see the leave policy as just a first step when it comes to advancing women at work.

There’s no guarantee under the new rules that fathers will take as much leave as mothers, or any at all, so views about women’s role as caretakers may not change.

And there are other complicated parenting issues that keep women out of the workforce. For instance, child care in Washington, especially in King County, is increasingly expensive, reaching more than $1,500 per month in some cases, according to Child Care Aware of Washington.

Often, women don’t earn enough to make child-care costs pencil out. That has spurred parent advocate groups to call for subsidized child care.

Still, as one of the most substantial plans in the U.S., Washington’s family-leave plan could set new precedents for women at work.

“I do think that it’s the first drop in the bucket,” said Jensen at ReBoot Seattle. But, she added, “I don’t want to minimize its impact — it’s very encouraging.”