SAN FRANCISCO – When it comes to benefits for parents, working at Facebook is about as family-friendly as you get. Parking for expectant mothers. "Baby cash" of $4,000 to cover expenses. Subsidized day care costs. And the four months of paid leave at the social media giant is among the longest offered in the USA.
Even with all this corporate help, some working moms at Facebook say they can't balance the demands of their jobs and grueling commutes with raising a family – and they blame Facebook's failure to extend more leave to parents or to grant a perk that's becoming increasingly common in corporate America: allowing employees to work part-time or from home.
These grievances, which simmered internally at Facebook before becoming public last week, reveal a side of Facebook that contrasts with its family-forward messaging and the leadership of Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who exhorted generations of women to "lean in" to their careers. Even at America's wealthiest companies, where policies cater to working parents, moms say they still can't get the time and flexibility they need.
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Data scientist Eliza Khuner, 38, says she quit her job at Facebook in July after being told she could not work from home nor could she work part-time. Her request to take additional unpaid leave to care for her infant daughter was rejected.
Facebook declined to comment.
In sharing her regrets about leaving Facebook, first with Facebook employees, then more widely in a column for Wired magazine ("Why It's So Hard to Be a Working Mom. Even at Facebook"), the mother of three sparked a growing debate over Facebook's internal policies and the state of paid parental leave in the USA.
Khuner says she knows Facebook employees have it far better than most. In the USA, the only developed nation that does not require any paid leave for new parents, millions of Americans – 85 percent of workers – don't get a single paid day off work after the birth or adoption of a child. Ninety-four percent of low-income working people have no access to paid family leave. As a result, women work late into their pregnancies, and a quarter of women return to work within 10 days of giving birth.
White-collar workers in the USA are most likely to get paid leave, and hourly workers are the least likely. In recent years, technology companies have led the charge in giving parents more time off, but even the most generous U.S. companies such as Facebook fall far short of Europe and Canada. Pressure is mounting for the federal government to step in as more cities and states pass family leave legislation requiring employers to give staffers a minimum number of paid days off to care for family members, including a new baby.
"We say Facebook is this great company and that it's so great for parents, all knowing that it's a four-month leave, which just indicates that, in our culture, we think a four-month leave is generous and it's just not, and somebody had to say it," Khuner says. "I thought there might be other people like me who don't feel like it's the right time to leave their baby and feel that it's wrong to say you are supposed to come back to work full-time, no matter what, when your baby is that young."
Reaction poured in from current and former Facebook employees who say they, too, have struggled or been sidelined.
Women, drawn to Facebook by high salaries and cushy perks, challenging assignments and the camaraderie with peers, shared stories of crying at their desks or dreading returning to work. Others said they left the company to join another or switched to part-time or contract work.
"I loved Facebook but just couldn't figure out how to be a good, present mom while also doing great in my job," one former Facebook employee wrote in a private Facebook group for moms working in tech with thousands of members.
"I'm on month 2 of my leave and terrified to go back," a Facebook mom wrote. "I know what's waiting for me, lots of travel, hundreds of emails, projects."
"I just returned to work to Facebook after four months of leave and it is WAY TOO SHORT," another commented.
"I also left Facebook after a horrendous experience returning to work," still another said. "I'm amazed a company with Sheryl Sandberg could be so unsupportive of parents."
The comments delivered a public relations blow to Facebook's family-friendly reputation and to Sandberg. Ever since her best-seller "Lean In" stirred a global debate about women in the workplace, Facebook's chief operating officer has championed policies to level the playing field.
As arguably the most prominent woman in tech, Sandberg has worked to close the gender gap at Facebook where, as at most major tech companies, men significantly outnumber women in the U.S. workforce, technical roles and senior leadership. Amid heated competition for top talent, she has positioned Facebook at the forefront of a growing movement among tech companies to promote policies that help parents.
The Menlo Park, California, company helped set a standard for paid leave in the tech industry. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg led by example, taking a couple of months off after the birth of each of his two daughters.
Katie Bethell, founder and executive director of the Paid Leave US campaign, says Facebook and Sandberg deserve credit for taking the lead on paid leave but are missing an important opportunity to do so again by extending the amount of leave parents get and by helping parents ease back into the workforce with more flexibility in how they work and from where.
Thirty-nine percent of employees worked remotely in 2012, according to Gallup data. By 2016, that number hit 43 percent. Employees spent more work time out of the office. Nearly a third spent 80 percent or more time working remotely in 2016, up from 24 percent in 2012.
"The fact that Facebook is better than most everyone else doesn't mean they are immune from challenges to do more," Bethell said.
The tech industry is tops in paid leave for parents and Facebook is one of its leaders.
The social media giant has gone to great lengths to help its employees with their caregiving responsibilities of other workers. Last year Sandberg announced that Facebook would begin giving up to 20 days of bereavement leave in the event of a family member's death, six weeks of paid leave to care for a sick relative and three days of paid family sick time. women continue to disproportionately bear the responsibilities of caring for sick children or parents, even when they work full time. The expansive leave policy was designed to help women remain in the workforce and continue to advance in their careers.
But when it comes to parental leave, Facebook no longer leads the pack.
Salaried employees of any gender at Netflix can take up to one year off at full pay after the birth or adoption of a child. At Salesforce, employees get 26 weeks of paid time off for primary caregivers and 12 weeks for secondary caregivers to bond with a new baby or adopted child. Microsoft announced last month that it would require its contractors with at least 50 employees in the USA to offer at least 12 weeks of leave to workers with substantial assignments at the tech giant.
How much paid leave employees get depends on where they are located. In the USA, Google offers parents who give birth 22 to 24 weeks of paid leave and 12 weeks for parents who don't give birth. Google employees in the U.K. who give birth receive 52 weeks of paid leave, and new parents who don't give birth get 12 weeks.
Corporations that offer longer leaves don't always have cultures that encourage parents to take them.
"I talk to a lot of women who work in tech, and there's so much frustration with this conflict between the promise and the reality of being a working parent," Bethell said.
Facebook, which faces crises on multiple fronts amid the spread of false news, hate speech and foreign election interference, is growing at a breakneck pace. Some working mothers with supportive managers are able to negotiate more flexible work schedules, but much depends on the job and the team, prompting some Facebook moms to leave the company.
It's not just the demanding hours. Soaring housing prices near Facebook's Silicon Valley headquarters force employees into lengthy commutes that extend their workday by as much as four hours.
The 40-mile trek from Berkeley to Menlo Park ran one hour and forty minutes each way for Khuner and was one critical factor in making what she says was the hardest decision of her life: choosing between her dream job and her child.
Khuner, who was pregnant when Facebook hired her and read "Lean In" while on leave, told fellow employees about her decision to walk away from Facebook on an internal message board. "I wrote: I love this place and I know that we can do things that people never thought possible and this is a problem we can solve," she says.
In the ensuing discussion, Sandberg explained that Facebook management could not give working parents more flexibility without putting too much strain on other employees. Khuner, her baby sleeping on her chest, attended a weekly Q&A with Facebook staffers, where she says Zuckerberg told her he would like to offer more options for working parents but couldn't yet.
Some Facebook moms agreed. "I am here to hustle, and so are the people around me," one wrote in the Facebook group for moms in tech. "Given that's where the culture is coming from, I'm not surprised it's hard for them to add in part-time jobs. ... I think the problem is not the lack of Facebook workplace policies but the lack of longer leave in the U.S. for all parents."
Khuner's post to her fellow Facebook employees drew thousands of reactions and hundreds of comments. A few employees were critical, pointing out that Facebook offers far more than other companies and industries, but others, even some who did not have children, rallied behind her.
"Thank you for sharing, as I literally tear up at my desk. This captured so many of my fears and anxieties as a new female employee," wrote one woman.
"I finally feel like I'm not the only one facing this problem," wrote the mother of a 7-week-old baby.