I had the opportunity last fall to spend some time doing academic research on the implications of parental leave on gender equality. Some of what I found in the literature feels like common sense, some challenges what we in American society would generally find comfortable. It's encouraging to see more of our national discourse - including the recent State of the Union - starting to include parental leave. To have a well-informed national conversation, here are ten things we should all know:
- Persistent gender inequalities in earnings, leadership roles, job satisfaction, and workforce participation exist in the United States and in developed nations around the world. These workplace inequalities are reinforced by an uneven distribution of family caregiving work - especially around the birth of a child - and a self-reinforcing negative cycle is created.
- Parental leave that is portrayed as gender neutral will almost exclusively be taken by the mother. Paternity leave must be specifically designated as such, and there must be consequences to not taking it (like losing total benefit time), for men to spend more than a day or two at home with their newborns. Referring to it as just "maternity leave" (like Obama did in the 2015 State of the Union), without emphasizing that paternity leave must accompany it, is even worse.
- Pure gender equality is an oversimplification of the situation that surrounds childbirth. Women do bear the greatest burden physically both immediately surrounding the birth and for an extended duration following if they choose to breastfeed their baby. Gender equity approaches that acknowledge these differences while working towards an equal result (not equal initial treatment) are more nuanced but much more effective.
- Maternity leave that extends too long, particularly in relation to what fathers are taking away from work, can keep mothers working, but will have a long-term negative impact on the mother’s career: both leadership and earnings potential will be permanently reduced. Data is patchy, but three months seems to be the threshold past which long-term repercussions start showing up. Unpaid maternity leave (as in the U.S.) can lead to women dropping out of the workforce is significant numbers.
- What is often perceived as the personal choices of the parents - both fathers and mothers - is often a false choice driven by expectation and financial reality, not a true personal desire to focus on either the caregivng or breadwinning roles to the detriment of the other. What we actually want, what we think we’re supposed to want, and what we feel like we have to do are often very different, and often mixed up together in a way that hides and excuses societal and policy shortcomings and prejudices.
- Parental leave is a broader economic issue both because it so tangibly impacts the earning potential of a large percentage of the population and because of its impact on societal birth rates. Economies can stall if not enough children are being born and do not grow as quickly without the full participation of women.
- Children and fathers both benefit from paternity leave. Fathers that get comfortable early on with taking care of their children tend to stay more involved and their children tend to be better off.
- Win-win solutions that work for employers as well as parents are not only possible, they are already being implemented voluntarily in many companies. Often all that is required to find one is to zoom out to include a fuller picture of longer-term productivity and costs.
- Public policy has the ability to encourage more equitable arrangements both at home and at work. By influencing societal norms, providing funding mechanisms that recognize the broader economic and societal benefit (necessity, really) of children, and requiring companies to put in the effort to find win-win solutions, good parental leave policies can have a significant positive impact on the parenting experience of both men and women.
- Overlaying the conversation about parental leave and its associated gender equity issues is a much bigger conversation about the value that we as a society put on caregiving work. This extends past infant care to childcare, teaching, eldercare, and other nurturing professions that are female dominated and low-paying. By challenging ourselves to place as much value on taking care of our children, our parents, and each other as we do on pure commercial pursuits, we start to get at the root of gender inequality and reshape the entire national discussion.
It's time that the United States take substantive steps towards a healthier economy, healthier families, and more equality between women and men. A well-done national paid parental leave policy is critical to this effort. Let's get educated, question our assumptions and supposed preferences, and support the careers and caregiving of both mothers and fathers.
Some of the more useful internet-friendly sources I’ve found:
Bailyn, L., Bookman, A., Harrington, M., and Kochan, T. (2005). Work-family interventions and experiments: workplaces, communities, and society. The MIT Workplace Center. Working Paper #WPC 0021.
Chemin, A., (2011, July 19). Norway, the fatherland: Paternity leave law helps to create more equal households. The Guardian.
Ely, R., Stone, P., Ammerman, C. (2014, December). Rethink what you “know” about high-achieving women. The Harvard Business Review.
Guilford, G. (Sept. 24, 2014). The economic case for paternity leave. Quartz.
Hanrahan, D. (October 20, 2014). American Business Should Take the Lead on Paid Parental Leave. Huffington Post.
Harrington, B., Van Deusen, F., Fraone, J. S., Eddy, S., Haas, L., (2014). The new dad: Take your leave. Boston College Center for Work and Family.
Miller, C. C. (2014, November 7). Paternity leave: The rewards and the remaining stigma. The New York Times.
Pew Research Center. (December 11, 2013). On pay gap, millennial women near parity – for now: Despite gains, many see roadblocks ahead.
World Economic Forum (WEF). (2013). The global gender gap report. Geneva, Switzerland. (ISBN 92-95044-43-6).
World Policy Forum. (2013). Global maps: Families.
A complete bibliography, including journal papers, is available upon request.