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Neutralizing the Gender Gap with Employer Policies
Episode 727th April 2023 • Absence Management Perspectives • DMEC
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It is increasingly important for employers to assess absence management policies to identify and address inherent bias. This work helps employers become more inclusive and avoid risks, explains Amber Burnap, CLMS, a senior absence consultant with Brown & Brown, in this podcast episode.

Learn more in Amber's feature article "To Gender Equity and Beyond" in the Employer Practices Compliance issue of @Work magazine. DMEC unlocked this article for podcast listeners.


DMEC: Welcome to Absence Management Perspectives: A DMEC Podcast. The Disability Management Employer Coalition or DMEC as we're known by most people, provides focused education, knowledge and networking opportunities for absence and disability management professionals. DMEC has become a leading voice in the industry and represents more than 18,000 professionals from organizations of all sizes across the United States and Canada. This podcast series will focus on industry perspectives and provide the opportunity to delve more deeply into issues that affect DMEC members and the community as a whole. We're thrilled to have you with us and hope you'll visit us at to get a full picture of what we have to offer, from webinars and publications to conferences, certifications, and much more. Let's get started and meet the people behind the processes.

Heather Grimshaw: Hi, we're glad you're listening. I'm Heather Grimshaw, communications manager for DMEC, and we're talking about gender equality in the workplace today with Amber Burnap, CLMS senior absence consultant with the Strategic Nonmedical Solutions Group at Brown and Brown. Amber wrote the article to Gender Equality and Beyond in @Work magazine, which provides an overview on this important issue and helpful guidance for employers. We'll unlock the article for listeners who will find the link in the notes section of this episode. And we've got a couple of questions here for Amber. So I'm just going to dig in. Some people get confused and nervous about saying the wrong thing when conversations about gender equality arise. What is a safe approach to jump starting conversations about employer policies to address these concerns?

Amber Burnap: So I think this is a topic that is going to resonate differently across employers, and I don't really think there's a one size fits all approach. So if we have listeners who are in an organization that's looking to jumpstart these types of conversations, I think it would be beneficial to maybe start with some employee resource groups or if your organization has cultural groups, and really get a handle on how your workforce or organizational culture feels about these topics. So is it something that resonates with them? Is it important to them? Heather we have such a diverse workforce out there today. We've got anywhere from traditional to progressive organizations. Sometimes it's a mix of both, and this input can help factor into the level of time and effort you invest as an organization into this initiative. So really just learn what your employees hold valuable from a policy design type standpoint, and then use that to help drive some changes.

Heather Grimshaw: And in your article, you talk about ways paid leave policies can neutralize the existing gender gap and that the US is ahead of the game here, which I think will come as a positive surprise to some. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?

Amber Burnap: Yeah, I think we can look at it from both aspects. So what I meant by that is that the US has yet to implement any kind of federal paid family leave or paid sick leave which does put us behind other countries where I sort of gathered this information from. So if we look at the nations that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is basically a group of countries that discuss and promote socioeconomic policies, the US is the only nation out of the 38 members that does not offer paid leave to new birth mothers. But that means the US basically has a blank canvas to start from. So not only in terms of the duration of a leave or the benefits that's associated with the time off, but also the accessibility of that time off for different employee groups and also how the policy terminology may be defined. So we've historically thought about males and females, mothers and fathers. Those are the individuals associated with new parent benefits. More recently, we've seen primary and non-primary caregivers. But ideally we're looking to the individuals engaged in drafting these future proposals and writing these types of policies in hope that they can be forward thinking enough to create a policy that's more progressive and help to be able to neutralize these gender gaps. Sticking to terms like parents or some other neutral terminology without insinuating that the benefits are any less equitable just on the basis of gender, that's really helpful.

Heather Grimshaw: I do wonder how many organizations are considering that as they're looking at their policies. And so I love the fact that you recommend that holistic review of your policies to see where you stand and to ask that question of your employees who can really guide, hopefully who can guide that discussion.

Amber Burnap: Yeah, employees really they have their own sense of values and you want to make sure that that's a fit with your culture. So I would definitely recommend polling employees, gaining their insight. Maybe they have some very valuable insight that can really help drive specifically where you should focus next steps. And that's oftentimes a lot of what we work with on our clients as well as gathering inputs from the folks doing the work at the organizational level to help drive some changes.

Heather Grimshaw: And I would think even those efforts would convey to employees that an employer wants to be inclusive.

Amber Burnap: Exactly.

Heather Grimshaw: The employer is asking those questions, soliciting that feedback and then of course, the hardest step, I would assume, is making those changes. That's where the real work begins. But I would think that that would go a long way or hope with employees to say or to recognize they're asking the question. They want my input.

Amber Burnap: Exactly, yeah. Employees, individuals want to be heard. If you are going to undertake this type of project, I would encourage you to be thoughtful about how you may potentially implement some changes just because if you're going out to employees now to ask for their opinion, they're going to wonder, what are you going to do with this after I give this to you? So having some sort of closed loop to provide feedback, if nothing else, just make sure that you've got a plan for the future.

Heather Grimshaw: I like that. The reference of the closed loop to say, this is what we heard you ask for, and here's maybe our next step so that everyone does feel heard and that they didn't spend time maybe sharing input or requests and then think it almost seems to make it worse. If someone asks for your input, you share that input and then it's like, well, did you even look at it? Did you read? Exactly. My next question for you is you describe some of the unique challenges associated with and the language you use is neutralizing the terminology used to acknowledge and refer to staff members due to multiple time off programs that are structured to differentiate between gender and sex. And I know there's a lot in that question, but I'm hoping that you'll say more about that because I do think that that really drives or keys into some of the most difficult pieces of this.

Amber Burnap: Yeah, and I think you'll see this throughout the article and hear it throughout our conversation. So everybody can appreciate time off programs are challenging. There's some efforts or some changes that are easy enough to make that could be impactful with relatively low effort going through policies or communications and updating mentions of he or she or similar terminology with they or their or them. But if we think about an absence, like an actual leave of absence, there's the potential for multiple programs to be running at one time. So if an individual is taking time off for the birth of a child, they're probably going to file for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. Maybe their employer offers a paid parental leave now more than ever, at least as compared to the past. So they might also qualify for statutory time off benefits under a state paid family leave program. We haven't said at this point is whether this person was the birth parent, and if it was the birth parent, they would also likely receive short term disability. And maybe their employer even offers an enhanced maternity benefit. So what we see with many of the leave management programs being used today is that they've been designed with, I guess, a male female field, if you will, that drives the application of some of these benefit programs. So if the employer is offering an enhanced maternity benefit, they might be relying on that female indicator to prompt that benefit being applied. Similarly, many of our employer HRIS systems have this same male female field that is used to share demographic information with the leave administrator, maybe. Really? My point is that there's just a lot going on behind the scenes that should be considered when making changes to any current processes.

Heather Grimshaw: That's a great point. And so when you're talking about a field, you're referring to a software field, is that right? Or a form, a field on a form?

Amber Burnap: I guess it could be either. I was personally thinking more so software field.

Heather Grimshaw: Okay. And I asked that question because it does illustrate the nuance to that or the steps that would have to be taken in order to not just assess but also adjust. If you're going to adjust your policy so that there is another option, so to speak, for people who don't associate with that he or a she option, there should be more options.

Amber Burnap: Yeah, I've seen some changes occurring in the vendor community, for example, offering something like, prefer not to say within the intake process as opposed to somebody identifying as male or female at that point. I think a lot of that's probably going to vary. Some of these processes will vary based on the employer's specific set up with their leave administration. We've seen it come up a little bit with the states. If we look at New York, they updated their paid family leave forms this year with the Gender X option. So we can definitely say that changes are occurring and I would expect that we're probably going to see more of these changes in the future.

Heather Grimshaw: That's a great example. Thank you for sharing it. Yeah. I do think that people, as we talked about earlier, there is an anxiety, I think, associated with having this conversation or knowing what to do next that would be inclusive and wouldn't alienate anyone. And so I think the more examples the better. Which is one of the reasons why I was thrilled to see the two examples of the organizations that you featured in your article that had changed their policies to be more inclusive.

Amber Burnap: Yeah, I think we're going to see a lot more of those changes.

Heather Grimshaw: So I'm hoping that you'll share along these same lines, I'm hoping that you'll share some guidance for organizations that might not have assessed their parental leaves or any of their leaves and might still be using terms such as primary or secondary caregiver in policy documents.

me of these cases. So back in:

Heather Grimshaw: Yeah, I think that's such an important point. That inherent bias, as you said, and you talk in your article about some of the widespread gender norms and some of the things that have just frankly always been there in these policies, seemingly. And so whether it is that unconscious bias or if it's people who just make that assumption, as you said, which is dangerous in and of itself and don't really think about how can we be more inclusive, that is certainly risky for employers, especially in today's environment.

Amber Burnap: Sure. And I think a lot of this, again, is based on how you as an organization are structured. So if you do engage leaders as part of this process, you've got to account for the fact that you've got several folks basically administering this the same as you would potentially with FMLA to employees. So making sure that they're trained, that they understand that you've got a handle on how they're approaching this benefit and conversations with employees is going to be very important.

Heather Grimshaw: That's another really good point because even if you have the right policies, if you haven't trained your people appropriately and there is either a misinterpretation or an assumption made, that conversation can again be risky and dangerous for employers and I would think lead to liability.

Amber Burnap: Definitely. I mean, if we think about it too, in reality, there might actually be a lot of extra work going towards managing this type of setup. So as I'm thinking through this, is the employer tracking who the parents of a child may be? Probably not. I mean, in my experience it's rare that employers are accurately tracking spouses who may be working for them for purposes of sharing time under the FMLA. So when somebody's applying for caregiver leave, what information are they being asked to provide? They could have two cohabitating parents that are both claiming to be primary caregiver. Is anyone overseeing that process to make sure those employees aren't taking advantage of that? Is there an affidavit that may be involved as part of the process that anybody's completing? Is somebody following up or taking action on that? As to whether or not it's truthful, there's certainly a cost associated with a move to a quote unquote enhanced policy. But it might be worth reviewing if some of these soft costs, like the effort currently going towards managing your process and then knowing that there's that risk of bias are impactful and recognizing there's a potentially favorable optics associated with expanding this type of benefits.

Heather Grimshaw: I'm glad you mentioned that as people are looking for different employment opportunities, I would think these types of policies would be incredibly appealing and important. So in addition to being a risk, they could also be an asset for employers.

Amber Burnap: Yeah, I think a lot changed since COVID I think everybody is looking for some additional flexibility today. I think we're seeing that with some of the statutory programs coming out, especially where you can sort of configure how much time you get for different leave reasons all within your total allotment. So I think this is something and again, check, look at your population, look at if you've got folks who are going out for birth of a child for caregiving reasons and think about if this would resonate with them because this could be a really impactful benefit.

Heather Grimshaw: And I do think it also comes full circle. One of the things that stuck with me in your article is the fact that there was a data point and I'm blanking on the exact percentage, but a worrisome number of people did not tell their supervisor that the pronoun or the way that they were being referred to was appropriate. And as a result, I can only assume would leave the organization would not feel seen and recognized and appreciated. And so whether or not your employees are looking into this type of leave, assessing how you're referring to people and really evaluating whether your policies are inclusive does seem to span the gamut in terms of employee value there.

Amber Burnap: Yeah, that's a great point.

Heather Grimshaw: This is such an important topic, and I really could keep you here forever.

Amber Burnap: Well, we both have absence, so we could probably talk about this forever. Exactly.

Heather Grimshaw: And I do really appreciate the fact that you mentioned earlier in the conversation the multiple leaves that can be running at the same time, which is another layer of complexity here for employers looking at this issue. And so really appreciate, again, the guidance that you offer in the article. And it does sound like there are some ways for employers to start small, as you mentioned in the piece, by reviewing policies and asking the question to their employees. So sometimes I think these things can seem overwhelming.

Amber Burnap: Yeah, I think it goes back, like you said, full circle to our first topic of conversation, getting nervous about saying the wrong thing, start small. I mean, this can be very daunting. I think if you immediately focus on making as many changes as you can, starting small, making sure it's going to resonate with your employees, that's going to be impactful if you're not doing that today. So that could certainly be a good place to start.

Heather Grimshaw: Well, thank you so much, Amber. And again, we will unlock this article, so please check the notes section of this episode of the podcast so that you can read through. Amber's, wonderful article, and thank you again for joining us.

Amber Burnap: Yeah, thank you. Thanks for having me.