Elevating pharma’s parental leave policies - European Medical Journal

Elevating pharma’s parental leave policies

5 Mins
With continued drive for equality across the pharma industry, the issue of parental leave is coming to the fore. But is the industry’s approach sufficiently transparent, and what more can be done?
Words by Lauren Alani, Regional Market Research Volunteer Group Lead, Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Europe

While parental leave is a key and sought-after benefit by job seekers it can be an awkward or challenging subject to raise when interviewing for a job. Many prospective parents are reluctant to broach the parental leave policy during the recruitment process, fearing the employer might think they are only taking the job in order to go on parental leave.

At some companies and organisations, the parental leave policy is disclosed later when sharing the benefit package once employment is secured or, worse, not until the need arises. This practice of disclosing essential information to the employee later can lead to higher turnover rates and possibly a disgruntled attitude about the entire company benefit package.

The question must be asked: will this historic practice remain, or will companies transition to a more transparent approach?

Unpicking pharma’s approach

After reviewing the top 10 pharmaceutical companies by revenue, there are only two – Novartis and Sanofi – which publish their parental leave policies on their company website. This is, without a doubt, the gold standard approach for attracting new employees and for promoting transparency. For others, there are a range of issues at play including the country eligibility criteria being unclear; making it difficult to understand what duration of leave is paid, partially paid or unpaid; or where details of their parental leave policy are not published at all.

The second-best scenario is having the parental leave policy in the employment contract; however, this may lead to unnecessary time waste during the recruitment process if the policy does not align to expectations. Even then, the legal language around the terms of parental leave may be unclear or primarily rely on statutory leave with a ‘teaser’ reference to potential eligibility to other enhanced benefits.

The desire for a more transparent approach is shown by the sheer volume of current and prospective employees using sites that enable the sharing of this vital information, such as Glassdoor. Unfortunately, this does not ensure the information provided is the most up-to-date.

The majority of top pharmaceutical companies vary their parental leave policies according to local government guidelines. But should companies research and create a standard maternity leave policy globally and incorporate required local laws instead? This is increasingly important as distrust in governments’ ability to address social inequity continues to rise, causing employees to turn to their respective companies to take on a more active role in helping to make our world more equitable, and this would also help to ensure the parental leave policy is clear and concise across the global workforce.

Maternity leave vs. paternity leave

This leads to another very important consideration: maternity leave versus paternity leave. If we want to move towards a more gender-neutral culture and all the benefits that brings, the risks of a business hiring either a woman or man need to be the same. This can only be achieved if the leave provided to both parents is matched. Scandinavian countries have one of the smallest gender pay gaps and one reason for this can be attributed to the local value of both parents being equal in the raising of their children, encouraged by the introduction of paid parental quotas for both partners.

From 1 January 2021, Spain also stepped up by creating a gender-neutral policy that provides full pay to both parents for 16 weeks and is non-transferrable. The simplicity of a gender-neutral policy is not only well understood and easy to communicate but also promotes gender parity at home as well as in the workplace.

Transitioning towards equal leave to enable new fathers to have a much more active role in raising their children is key, allowing movement away from the stereotypical and often pressurised role of women as primary caregiver and to ensure company policies increase the possibility of women staying in full-time employment.

Progress for pharma

Most large pharmaceutical companies have already introduced a minimum paid gender-neutral parental leave policy. At the start of 2022, Novo Nordisk joined the ranks of Johnson & Johnson in providing eight weeks paid parental leave globally, while Novartis and Sanofi are leading the way with a global policy to support all new parents for 14 weeks. Others appear to offer gender neutrality policies only in certain countries or in varying guises across different countries, or have not provided clear communication on their parental leave policy.

The most generous paternity leave policy covering a range of 15-23 weeks came from Pfizer US, which recently ran an Instagram campaign to promote its February 2022 policy, although only employees in the US appear to be eligible. While it is clear most of the top pharma companies have made great strides towards global gender neutrality policies, the duration still falls short when compared to the likes of Deloitte, American Express and Netflix, where the policies range from 16-52 weeks.

Large pharmaceuticals aren’t the only ones leading this change. A number of small-to-mid-size companies in life sciences are also recognising the company and societal benefits of having a more supportive policy around parental leave. Aetion provides 16-weeks paid parental leave for full-time employees, and Horizon Therapeutics offers 10-weeks paid leave for all birth and adoptive parents, plus up to $25,000 in adoption support.

For a gold standard approach in achieving parity, adoption should also be included and it already has been in some large pharma, in addition to leave for miscarriage, fertility and infertility support, which is more rarely applied. One of the leaders in fertility and infertility support is Pfizer US, although it is unclear whether this is also available more broadly. In addition to 16-weeks leave, Real Chemistry – formerly W2O – also offers a ‘Forth Trimester Program’ to support new parents return to work.

The eligibility factor

Is it right to stipulate length of employment into any parental leave policy? Some companies stipulate maternity leave is only valid from the second year of employment, such as J&J’s maternity policy in Switzerland. However, there is evidence to suggest that women are increasingly choosing to focus on their career first before starting a family, and this means the average childrearing age is continuing to rise. Nevertheless, the eligibility factor raises an important question: does this add even more pressure to have children later and is this ethical when it can take years to conceive and may increase the risk for mother and baby?

The stipulation on length of service may also detract top female talent from applying for roles and put pressure on women who have an unplanned pregnancy if they cannot get the support they need, especially considering the increasing costs to childcare. A more simplistic stance removing the need for length of service would be more sensitive to these issues, enable companies to continue attracting top talent and promote a clear communication strategy instead of one relying on copious small print.

Whether or not individuals are planning on having children, it is important that the pharma industry continues to strive towards a more transparent and equitable culture – something often not addressed in parental leave. Companies that have thoroughly considered how to ensure their parental leave is supportive and equitable are likely to experience higher retention and talent attraction rates and to have a more supportive culture regardless of an individual’s current needs, whether that is time off to care for a sick relative or for other personal reasons, for example.

A transparent approach to communication surrounding company benefits in general reduces stress and confusion and ensures all employees have a good understanding of the true value offered by their workplace. If you are currently going through a recruitment process or are unsure of your current company’s benefits policies, have confidence to seek clarification.

Update 03 Oct 22:

Even more recently, Finland modernised its parental leave legislation. Parents with an estimated due date on or after 4 September 2022 now both have access to 160 days parental leave, replacing the older policy of 105 workdays for maternity leave and 54 workdays for paternity leave. The shift in terminology is more understanding for a range of family units, including same-sex and single parents, and whether the child is or is not biological or is adopted. One criticism is that it does not stipulate payment terms, therefore, the onus is still on corporations to specify how they will support, retain and attract employees.

For pharma companies that have country-specific parental leave policies in place, such as Johnson & Johnson, human resource departments will need to ensure changes are made to reflect legislation updates – something that may be avoided if global policies are utilised.

About the author

As a new mum, Lauren Alani’s background in innovation and industry research inspired her drafting of this article. She is the Regional Market Research Volunteer Group Lead, Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Europe, and has championed recent research reports on gender equity and the pay gap in the life sciences, including the HBA’s 2019, 2021 and the recent 2022 snapshot pay gap studies.

In her day job, she is an advocate for innovation to improve the effectiveness and communication in clinical trial development, and her work has developed the market for innovative software in the biostatistical space, modelling and simulation and ePRO/eCOA, and provides thought leadership in DCT, integrated EHR and wearables.

Lauren also serves as the committee chair for eDigital data management expert group for ACDM, which produces thought leadership content on digital innovations in clinical trials.

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