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.
Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.
In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.
What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.
Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.
Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.
While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.
According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.
In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.
Source-Alex Brandon, AP
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.
Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.
The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.