Why Paid Parental Leave Could Be Key to Diversifying the Tech Workforce


The president's new parental leave policy may entice more women to seek STEM jobs in the federal government versus the private sector.

When it comes to attracting top-tier tech talent, the federal government faces stiff competition from the private sector, which often promises six-figure salaries and state-of-the-art facilities.

The gap is further emphasized when it comes to women in tech fields. Women currently make up less than a third of federal IT employees, and even fewer federal aerospace engineers or electronics engineers.

Here’s why that could change.

President Barack Obama recently signed a presidential memorandum calling on agencies to advance paid sick leave for federal employees to take time off to recuperate after childbirth and for their spouses to care for them. Obama also called on Congress to approve legislation giving federal employees an additional six weeks paid administrative leave for birth, adoption or foster placement.

Although still a dismal failure on the international stage (the U.K. provides 39 weeks paid leave), Obama’s plan is better than the nationwide Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

While paid parental leave may not seem like a tech issue, experts and advocates say having more robust options -- available to both men and women -- could play a big role in building more diverse workforces.

Although huge tech conglomerates such as Google provide their employees with 18 weeks of paid maternity leave, most smaller tech companies provide nothing close to that.

So, if Obama gets his way, one of the best opportunities for parental leave might just be found in the federal government. That could turn out to be an attractive selling point in enticing technologists of all stripes to federal service.

“If you could each pick a policy that you’d like to see institutionalized or changed that would make a huge difference, what do you think it would be?” panelists at Tuesday's State of the Net conference in Washington, D.C., were asked.

Anne Toth, vice president of policy and compliance strategy at Slack Technologies and a mother of three young boys, answered quickly, “Paid parental leave.”

Diversifying the tech industry was a frequent topic during the conference’s handful of keynote discussions.

During a discussion with Edith Ramirez, the chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, referenced 2014 as the “year when we woke up to the role that gender plays on the Internet and the tech industry.”

Ramirez agreed, adding: “I think that any company that seeks to be at the cutting edge and innovative, they need to make use of the full talent pool. I think by not hiring and not ensuring your workforce is diverse, you’re missing out on that.”

But enticing more women into federal tech jobs extends beyond simply changing workplace benefits.

Federal Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, another keynote speaker at State of the Net, explained that efforts to expand the pipeline of STEM careers should happen much earlier -- grade school.

“There’s a real opportunity in the schools,” she said. “We would never teach children not to write, when we teach them to read. But we give them all of these math facts. Let’s transform education.”

(Image via Photographee.eu/Shutterstock.com)

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