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When Helping Working Moms Doesn't Help

Donna Levin on June 01, 2015 02:45 PM

The United States is an easy target for not providing paid parental leave for new moms, considering the ample research highlighting the benefits of maternity leave, and the fact that the rest of the developed world requires it.

But where the critiques often misfire is in the assumptions about the impacts of national mandates on parental leave and other protections for working moms. So quick are we to point to the lengthy leave policies in Europe that we rarely take the time to examine what these mandates ultimately mean for women, for their careers.

Turns out we should.

While well-intentioned policies, like paid parental leave and mandated child care, seek to strengthen working families and improve gender parity, they can have the unintended consequences of perpetuating workplace discrimination against the very populations they’re meant to support – the working women.

Here, we’ll look at where some family-friendly policies have gone wrong, and how to prevent future initiatives – in the United States, perhaps – from backfiring.

The Story

By now you’ve probably read Claire Caine Miller’s fantastic piece for The New York Times’ must-read blog “The Upshot.” In it, Miller uses a child care law in Chile, a part-time work provision in Spain, and long maternity leaves across Europe as examples of how well-meaning policies can have unfortunate effects.
Writes Miller:
Family-friendly policies can help parents balance jobs and responsibilities at home, and go a long way toward making it possible for women with children to remain in the work force. But these policies often have unintended consequences.
They can end up discouraging employers from hiring women in the first place, because they fear women will leave for long periods or use expensive benefits. “For employers, it becomes much easier to justify discrimination,” said Sarah Jane Glynn, director of women’s economic policy at the Center for American Progress.
Miller goes on to explain that these consequences include:
  • A Chilean law providing free child care has resulted in women (not men) receiving lower salaries to offset the cost of care.
  • European countries are seeing women not rising in their careers because of lengthy leaves.
  • In Spain, a law allowing employees with young children to receive reduced hours has resulted in a spike in female unemployment as they are less likely to be hired, less likely to get promoted and more likely to be dismissed.
So where do these policies go wrong, and what can be done to prevent this type of backlash?

Identifying Flaws, and Fixing Them

In each of the cases highlighted above, there’s a fatal flaw in the policies intended to protect women that wound up hurting them in the long run. Sticking with the examples above, we can identify a few main themes:
  • Putting too much burden on employers
  • Approaching parenting as a women’s issue
  • And doing too much

Here, we’ll attempt to provide some suggestions about how to design family-friendly policies from backfiring:

  1. Make Sure It’s a Joint Effort
    Simply put: You can’t legislate gender parity. It’s crucial that government leaders work together with business leaders to design family-friendly policies that are tenable and sustainable for families, and for their employers. In cases where employers feel too much of a financial burden, as in the example of Chile’s child care law, that burden will be passed along to female employees.

  2. Stop Framing Child Care as a Women’s Issue
    Enterprises and governments alike need to stop assuming that family care is a woman’s work. The societal assumption that parenting is a female’s responsibility stalls progress toward the more equal breadwinner-caregiver dynamic modern families want. If we were to approach parental leave, part-time work and child care policies as gender neutral, we’d be addressing two gender biases in one.

    Firstly, modern dads want to be more involved as parents than their fathers and their fathers’ fathers were, but we don’t have the systems in place to support that. When parental leave and child care provisions are tied to gender, the effect is a subtle gender bias against men that stands in the way of gender parity in the workplace. Making it harder for men to be equals at home, in turn, makes it harder for women to be equals at work.

    Secondly, if we’re able to get to a point where both men and women perceived as family caregivers, it would effectively double what’s considered a “working parent” and counteract the biases against women of childbearing age. Attaining a critical mass of working parents proving that parenthood doesn’t devalue their contributions as employees should help to overcome existing concerns about hiring and promoting women.

    There is some precedent supporting the hypothesis that gender-neutral family-friendly policies can have a positive impact on working moms and their careers. Slate highlighted examples from Quebec and Sweden, where “paid leave policies are designed to push men into taking time off.” 

    In Sweden, dads have to take at least two months off for their families to get any paid leave. As a result, 85 percent of fathers take leave and it’s been a boon for Swedish women – studies have shown moms’ incomes increase 7 percent for every month of paternity leave their husbands take.

    Historically, research has shown men who take paternity leave maintain a more active role in their children’s lives. In Quebec, where five weeks of parental leave are set aside specifically for fathers, dads have increased their participation in child care and household chores by 23 percent, and women have become more likely to work full-time, work longer hours and earn more money.

  3. Find the Sweet Spot
    Does “too much of a good thing” apply to family-friendly policies? Research says yes. It’s true that parental leave makes it more likely that new moms will return to work following the birth of a child. However, studies on European policies have shown women with access to long maternity leave and the ability to work part-time are far less likely to rise to positions of power in their careers.

    So what’s the solution? T
    here are two schools of thought on how to overcome the correlation between longer maternity leave and lower ceilings on women’s careers.

    One approach would be to encourage the division of parental leave among both parents, as in the policies in Germany and Sweden. The logic here being that establishing a more gender neutral norm around parenting would mitigate discrimination against women.

    Another suggests finding a moderate length for leave – something between the 40-plus weeks on the higher end and the six to eight weeks American short-term disability would offer. The International Labor Organization’s minimum standard for maternity leave is 14 weeks, with income replacement at two-thirds of previous earnings. More than one-third of reporting countries fully meet those standards, and more than 100 countries reduce employers’ financial liability by funding family-friendly benefits through social security or other public funds.

    The ILO standard is not so far off from the provisions proposed under the FAMILY Act, legislation introduced earlier this year by US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. (Read more about the FAMILY Act here.)

    The FAMILY Act would guarantee 60 days of gender-neutral paid family leave for American workers, during which employees would receive up to 66 percent of typical monthly wages through a Social Security Administration trust funded by employer and employee contributions.

    Perhaps that’s a start.
What do you think is the right balance for a long enough maternity leave that allows mother to bond without affecting her career? And should paternity leave be equally as long? 
Donna Levin is a co-founder and Vice President of Public Policy and CSR for In this role,  she is dedicated to discovering innovative solutions to the growing global care issue, helping shape local, federal and state matters as they pertain to families.
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