The problem is obvious: The U.S. lags far behind other countries in terms of maternal and parental leave. But the remedies are complex.
No single evidence-based solution presented itself as the “Gender Equality: It’s About Time” conference on Friday turned toward public policy. However, on the second day of a two-day conference presented by the Weatherhead Initiative on Gender Inequality, a number of intriguing suggestions were raised, all posing possible ways forward.
Bringing together scholars from Europe as well as the U.S., the conference focused on different national contexts and state policies, with the goal of comparing methods and results.
As conference organizer and initiative co-director Mary Brinton, Reischauer Institute Professor of Sociology, noted beforehand, maternal or parental leave is key to solving gender inequality: “There’s a well-established wage penalty that women face when they become mothers, or they are more or less forced out of the workplace because they can’t convert their jobs to a part-time job. What are the possibilities and how can we think about pushing the implementation of policies at the level of the workplace that lessen gender inequality?”
To open the discussion, Monika Queisser, head of the division for social policy at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), based in France, spoke about parental leave policies in OECD countries. Outlining the stark comparison between most of Europe, where leave is measured in months, and the U.S., where only five states have mandated leave to supplement temporary disability insurance and the Family Medical Leave Act, Queisser discussed the implications of that predicament. While the effects on the parents — and on a nation’s overall labor participation — may be obvious, study has now progressed to the implications on the well-being of children, said Queisser.
“We need to think about child development and the way nations think about their children,” she said, noting that children benefit when their mothers have less stress and more financial stability. “We would argue that it is not acceptable for nations not to think of children as their responsibility.”
Maya Rossin-Slater, assistant professor of health research at Stanford University School of Medicine, looked at existing policies in the U.S. Because of restrictions on the Family Medical Leave Act, she said, many private-sector employees aren’t covered. Therefore, many single mothers and those in otherwise financially challenged situations cannot afford to take leave.
In states where paid leave is mandated, such as California, the rate of leave-taking is doubled for mothers with infants under the age of 1, from three weeks on average to six weeks, with the largest estimated effects for economically disadvantaged families. For mothers, she continued, this means a higher employment rate nine to 12 months after childbirth and more work hours and higher wages in the child’s second year.