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Reddit co-founder is latest tech executive to take parental leave

Tennis star Serena Williams and her fiance, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, welcomed a baby girl last week. Above, the pair attends a gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 1 in New York. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images/

When college roommates Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman cooked up the idea for Reddit, they weren't thinking about company culture or worker benefits. But now Ohanian, Reddit's co-founder and fiance of tennis champion Serena Williams, is taking full advantage of his company's new parental leave policy after welcoming a baby girl on Friday.

Ohanian joins Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg as a prominent male tech executive taking parental leave. The move illustrates how tech firms, after a flurry of coverage about their poor work-life balance, are working to change their tune as they — and their founders — age.

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The work culture at these firms is notorious for demanding that employees throw their whole selves into work, said Ellen Bravo, co-executive director of the advocacy group Family Values @ Work.

A few years ago, then-Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer faced harsh criticism, twice, for taking less than a month of maternity leave after the birth of her children — but some saw it as a reaction to the pressure that women in tech face to devote their lives to their jobs. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, speaks often on the difficulty that women face balancing family and work. The social network was one of the first to offer 16 weeks of leave to new parents, including contractors. And in 2017, after Sandberg's husband died, Facebook bolstered its bereavement leave and other family leave policies.

Reddit's head of people and culture, Katelin Holloway, crafted the firm's policy by drawing on her experience: While at a different tech firm, she found herself on a conference call while heading into the delivery room.

Ohanian said that coming up with a leave plan isn’t something that start-up founders usually think about until their company has grown enough, to having at least 100 employees. (Hitting that benchmark usually means that a start-up has some stability.) When Holloway came on in 2016, the company had 75 employees. Now, as the leave plan goes into full effect, the company has 250 employees.

Only 14 percent of American workers have access to any paid parental leave, according to the Pew Research Center, and only 12 percent of companies offer any paid paternity leave. The average maximum for paid maternity leave in the United States is 14.2 weeks.

Reddit gives new parents 16 weeks of leave, regardless of whether they give birth, their spouse does or they adopt a child. It was important for Holloway to add aspects to the policy that went beyond time off, such as parental classes and a place for working parents within the company to offer support to each other.

Reddit specifically has had a poor reputation for the way it treats its workers, particularly women. But when Huffman returned as chief executive in 2015, the company started to reshape its culture.

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The leave policy is part of that. “For me, it's more than just the time,” Ohanian said by phone a couple of weeks before his daughter's birth. Reddit also makes plans before the start of the parental leave to hand off responsibilities, to ensure that parents away from work can stay that way.

It may seem odd to laud men for finally speaking out on something women have said for years. But, Holloway said, it's important to have any high-level executive speak up — and to hammer home that paid leave for any parent supports a whole family. “I realized that supporting men was also supporting women,” Holloway said.

This post has been updated to include more details on Reddit's new parental leave policy.