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Mark Zuckerberg is starting his parenting career on the right note

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Leaving by example

Mark Zuckerberg

On Friday, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that he’ll be taking two months off from work after the birth of his daughter to focus on being a parent. I applaud his decision, which runs counter to so many of the prevailing (and deleterious) myths we have about what it takes to be the leader of a large company. All too often, workaholism is mistaken for dedication, and neglect of family is taken as some kind of marker for diligence. We need more people like Zuckerberg — those who have a choice of whether to take parental leave or not — to set the right expectations and an example for everyone around them to follow.

Satya Nadella put it very astutely when he said that, as Microsoft CEO, his job is to be the curator of corporate culture. He might not be the one making the final design or engineering decisions, but he determines the mindset and objectives that inform those choices. That’s just as true, perhaps even more so, when it comes to the more personal decisions that his employees make — such as whether to utilize the parental leave available to them or to forego it in an effort to be more competitive and avoid being stigmatized.

Family life has intrinsic, unquantifiable value of its own

One of Nadella’s charges, Joe Belfiore, has decided to take a year away from work to travel with his family. The immediate reaction from fans and many corners of the tech press was to question whether the news was a form of "soft firing": taking a long hiatus before returning in a diminished role. Belfiore’s efforts with Windows Phone have never delivered any great success, and it could still be the case that he’s taking an honorable demotion, but we have to question our own knee-jerk reaction. Why do we not credit the idea of spending a year wholly dedicated to one’s young family as having value in and of itself?

In a former life, I interned at an investment management firm. There, I would see some of the smartest people I’ve met using up all their time and energy behind Bloomberg terminals while their kids grew up in their absence. Those men were undoubtedly great providers of fungible goods for their families, but they were not, in my judgment, great parents. How can you be a good father if you’re never present to do fatherly things?

What Joe Belfiore and Mark Zuckerberg are doing are things we all should be able to do. The reality of life in the United States, however — where parental leave is a privilege and not a right — is that only very few even get the option. And among those who do, there’s a widespread culture of "electively" neglecting those benefits in order to keep up in the corporate rat race. Much of the furor surrounding Amazon’s work conditions centered on the extreme culture and expectations within the company. Contrast that with Microsoft, whose values, says Belfiore, "align with mine and whose management has been completely supportive of me and my family."

Tech companies are far from perfect, but they are moving in the right direction

The tech industry has taken a number of important steps toward promoting greater inclusiveness and equality among genders and races. It still has a long way to go, but having Indian-American leaders like Microsoft’s Nadella and Google’s Sundar Pichai, as well as the openly gay Tim Cook of Apple, offers great symbolic significance. It signals an industry that’s unafraid of being diverse, and big companies like Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Intel now prepare detailed reports that track their progress on that front.

The reason why paternity leave matters in the gender equality conversation is that it actually works in women’s favor. If men take as much time off as women after the birth of a child, then both genders would be hired on an equal footing, without the unspoken prejudice against women who’d be expected to be absent longer around a pregnancy.

As of this summer, Netflix offers unlimited paid parental leave for the first year after a child’s birth. It’s gender-neutral. Amazon followed that lead this month, partially, by announcing it will offer paid paternity leave for the first time in its history. It doesn’t match the company’s maternity leave allowance, but it’s another incremental step toward better and fairer working conditions.

Where Zuck leads, other chief executives should follow

The more companies that follow Netflix’s lead, the better. But the formal availability of parental benefits isn’t enough. It has to be given meaning and endorsement by each company’s leadership — and it’s arguable that Mark Zuckerberg should have gone further and taken the full four months of available paid leave that Facebook offers. Because if Zuck can take that much time to be a good dad, then so can all the rest of us. That’s the sort of thinking that has to filter through companies like Facebook, Microsoft, the rest of the tech industry, and all other businesses in a modern society if we are to achieve the universal goal of creating better places and ways to work.

Family life has intrinsic, unquantifiable value in and of itself. The tech industry is gradually recognizing that, in a move toward greater equality that needs to be fueled by more examples of CEOs and other high-level executives paying due attention to their families. Why else do we work but to ensure a good life for ourselves and our loved ones? A good work ethic shouldn’t come at the cost of a good family life.