Making The Case For Paid Maternity Leave In The U.S.A


The United States is one of only three nations, and the only first-world country, that does not mandate paid maternity leave. Papua New Guinea and Swaziland are the others. In short, new mothers come up short in that they must often choose between keeping their jobs or having babies. How embarrassingly far behind are we? Consider this: 178 other nations around the world offer paid leave for new mothers.

“The U.S. is the only high-income nation not to have paid maternity leave, while almost all middle and low-income countries offer it, too," says Jody Heymann, founding director of McGill University's Institute for Health and Social Policy and author of “Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth That We Can't Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone."

As advanced as our nation is economically and technologically, it remains far behind the times when it comes to supporting families after the birth of a child. Numerous studies show that early bonding with parents sets children up for long-term health and well-being. “All aspects of adult human capital, from workforce skills to cooperative and lawful behavior, build on capacities that are developed during childhood, beginning at birth," according to a 2007 report from the National Scientific Council Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Yet only about half of all first-time mothers in the U.S. are able to take any paid leave after childbirth; and just a fifth of working women, with young children, receive leave with full pay, according to a review of the most recent Census data by the Washington, DC-based advocacy group National Partnership for Women & Families. And it's only getting worse.

The Case for Paid Leave

Back in 1993, when the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was enacted, it was intended as the entry point for parental leave, and not the sum total of our country's efforts. It mandates (FMLA) 12 weeks of job-guaranteed leave for caregivers. That's great if you can actually get it, but many parents cannot because it's unpaid. Furthermore, small companies are exempt, and employees who are in a company for less than a year or work less than 24 hours per week are also out in the cold.

There is also some evidence that parents, both mothers and fathers, benefit from being able to take leave. Mothers who were employed prior to child birth and who delay returning to work after giving birth experience fewer depressive symptoms than those who return to work earlier. Fathers who take longer leaves after a child's birth are more involved in childrearing activities once they return to work. These benefits for parents also contribute to improved child well-being.

In addition, family leave policies have a number of consequences for parental employment, mainly for women. Access to leave, even unpaid leave, increases the likelihood of women's return to work following child birth; it also increases the likelihood of women returning to the same job. Rights to parental leave increased women's rate of employment in Europe. State and federal leave policies, even unpaid leave policies, increase the likelihood of leave-taking as well as the length of leave taken for mothers and fathers. Since family leave policies increase parents' ability to maintain attachment to the labor force, even after they have children, these policies are a crucial way of promoting family economic security.

The Federal Family and Medical Leave Act

The FMLA, signed into law in 1993, provides up to 12 weeks a year of unpaid leave from employment to certain workers for major life events. It was the first piece of federal legislation to address the competing demands of work and family. Under FMLA, covered and eligible workers are guaranteed 12 weeks of leave annually in the event of the worker's own serious illness, or to care for a seriously ill parent, child, or spouse, or for the birth of a baby, or adoption or foster placement of a child.

A key provision of FMLA is that the leave is job-protected, which means that workers who take leave are entitled to the same position, or one that has equivalent pay and seniority, upon return from leave. Employers are required to extend health insurance to workers who take leave, if such benefits are ordinarily offered by the employer.

Much more is needed

Although FMLA represents a significant policy achievement for working families, it has two notable weaknesses: it does not cover all workers, and the leave offered is unpaid. These weaknesses disproportionately affect low-income parents. FMLA does not apply to small businesses, only employers with 50 or more employees have to comply with it. It also excludes some part-time workers and those with less stable employment histories. To be eligible for leave under FMLA, an employee has to have worked for the same employer for at least one year and must have worked for the same employer for at least 1,250 hours in the previous 12 months (25 hours per week, on average, for 50 weeks).

Workers who are least likely to have access to voluntary leave benefits, through an employer, are also less likely to be covered by FMLA. It is estimated that only half of all workers are both covered (that is, work for an employer with 50 or more employees) and eligible (that is, have been with their employer for the previous year and worked at least 1,250 hours) for FMLA.

Less than half (46 percent) of all women workers are estimated to be covered, and some estimates show that only 20 percent of new mothers are covered and eligible for FMLA.

Yet even workers who are fortunate enough to qualify for FMLA often cannot afford to take leave without pay. One analysis found that 77 percent of employees who needed leave but decided not take it made that decision for "financial reasons," and 88 percent of this group said that they would have taken leave had some wage replacement been available. Salaried workers and those with higher incomes are more likely to take family leave compared to hourly workers.

Low-income workers are more likely to work for employers who do not provide pay during leave: one survey found that 74 percent of workers earning less than $20,000 annually received no pay from their employer while on leave, whereas 24 percent of workers earning between $50,000 and $75,000 received no pay during leave.

India gets it

India's new maternity leave policy puts the U.S. to shame. In India, only 27 percent of women work, and that shortage costs the country approximately 2.5 percentage points of gross domestic product per year. In early March 2017, they made a bold attempt to address the problem by doubling its federally mandated paid maternity leave from three months to six. India's new policy easily outstrips most of the world. If India were an OECD country it would rank sixth, alongside Poland and Israel, for longest paid leave. Only the U.K., Ireland, Greece, Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic offer new mothers more paid time off.

India's new 26 weeks of paid leave surpasses France's 16-week leave and easily bests the 14 weeks available in Japan and Germany. Despite the new law, there are flaws: it only applies to the nation's 1.8 million female workers in organized labor and only if their company employs more than 10 workers, excluding another 16 million women who are deemed self-employed or work-from-home. There's also concern that the new law may serve as a disincentive to hiring women because their potential leave is an additional expense.

Will we get it?

Since Trump won the White House he has referenced paid leave for “parents" during his recent address to a joint session of Congress, and First Daughter Ivanka is reportedly pushing for Congressional support for a paid parental leave measure and child tax benefits. The proposal that Trump voiced, during his campaign, would give moms six weeks of paid leave. That would put the U.S., in last place among OECD nations, tied with Portugal and Australia, which also guarantee six weeks of paid leave.

Our newsletter that womansplains the week
4min read

Going Makeupless To The Office May Be Costing You More Than Just Money

Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.

Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.

Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.

As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.

Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.

So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.

Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.

For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."