Left Behind: Parental Leave and the Promise of Transnational Practice

David Langdon


December 20, 2016



The deplorable state of parental leave practices in the United States is well established. Along with Papua New Guinea, the United States is one of two remaining countries that do not require any kind of paid maternity leave for new mothers. 1 The Family Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, stipulates only twelve weeks of unpaid, postpartum leave for female employees of non-exempt companies. 2 Whereas other developed countries have seen expansive increases in allowed time off, financial benefits, and eligibility for non-childbearing parents in recent years, the United States has witnessed no federal movement on parental leave policy in nearly a quarter century. Particularly in light of mounting evidence demonstrating the net benefits of parental leave for newborns, employee-parents, and even employers, the failure to redress legal policies and corporate practices in the United States is becoming ever more baffling and inexcusable.

Of course, the federal legal minimum does not preempt more progressive state and local policies, and businesses are free – and indeed encouraged – to provide stronger parental leave benefits voluntarily. But in architectural practice, the adoption of supplemental paid leave is source of particular vexation due to several unique characteristics of the profession’s working culture. First, the project-based nature of architecture lends itself poorly to long gaps in employment, on account of both the difficulty of employee exit and reentry and the irreplaceable value of specific knowledge held by project workers. Second, architectural culture generally encourages long hours and workweeks, discouraging family rearing and placing heavy pressures on parents. Third, the collaborative nature of the design process discourages remote work and flexible hours. 3 And lastly, the industry’s long and pernicious record of gender inequity has historically worked to marginalize the issue of paid family leave, further exacerbating professional inequalities and anti-family biases.

As architectural practice evolves and adjusts to contemporary economic conditions, the increasing presence of large, transnational firms is presenting the profession with new management challenges but also opportunities for addressing the issue of parental leave. Because overseas offices are subject to the labor and human rights laws of their host countries, firms are often required to institute multiple personnel policies to remain legally compliant. For firms with offices in the United States, this invariably means that their employees located abroad receive more generous parental leave benefits with longer leaves of absence and higher rates of compensation.

This paper argues that transnationality in corporate architectural practice encourages firms to voluntarily improve their leave policies for U.S. workers, and in the process, invites the adoption of new models of design work. Beginning with an overview of contemporary architectural practice, it examines the state of parental leave policies in U.S. architecture firms today and compares them to peer industries. It then examines trans-national firms in architecture and other industries, focusing in particular on disparities in Human Resources (HR) policies and how they relate to broader legal requirements. Lastly, it speculates on the implications of these policies for employees and firms and how they might influence future models of architectural labor and production.


  1.  And even Papua New Guinea does better. “(A)ll civil servants, including doctors, nurses, midwives, teachers in PNG are entitled for paid maternity leave, unlike in the U.S.” “Maternity and Paternity at Work: Law and Practice Across the World.” International Labour Organization. Geneva: International Labour Office, 2014. 
  2. Covered private-sector employers must have “50 or more employees in 20 or more workweeks,” and employees are only eligible after twelve months of full-time service, among other criteria. “Fact Sheet #28: The Family and Medical Leave Act.” U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division. Revised 2012. 
  3. “A lot of collaboration in the design process demands face-time in the office.” Lau, Wanda. “Q+A: Rosa Sheng Wants to Know Why Women Leave Architecture.” Architect Magazine. 14 May 2014.