The Case for Paid Parental Leave: Gender Equality in the Workforce

By Angela Su 2014-10-20-Map

Earlier this year, Oman, a small Arab country on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, passed laws that federally mandated paid maternity leave for all working mothers, taking Oman off the very short list of countries without this policy. This list now includes only the United States and Papua New Guinea, the latter being a country that researchers from Médecins Sans Frontières have labeled as “potentially the worst place in the world for gender violence.” This makes the United States the only industrialized nation in the world without federally mandated paid maternity leave. What the United States does have is the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, which allows workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. Only three states, California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, have instituted paid family leave policies, providing new parents with four to six weeks of paid time off, all of which are funded through payroll taxes. The scarcity of mandated paid leave means that 89 percent of workers in the United States do not have access to paid family leave, the lack of which puts female workers, especially those of low income, at a disadvantage in their careers when they choose to start a family. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed into action the Equal Pay Act, and the next few decades saw remarkable progress in the narrowing of the gender wage gap and an increasing flow of women into the workforce. However, a Princeton study found that both these rates have slowed in the past 20 years, and today, women are still paid, on average, 18 percent less than men. At first glance, it’s easy to assume that outright gender discrimination is the cause of the gender wage gap. A famous, albeit unconventional, example of this discrimination is the immediate 20 percent increase in the number of women accepted by the nation’s top symphonies after blind auditions were instituted. However, in a National Bureau of Economic Research study, Cornell economists Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn found that factors such as differences in education, occupation, and career interruptions accounted for the majority of the pay deficit, leaving only nine percent  unexplained. Blau and Kahn’s findings concur with those of most researchers, who agree that outright sexism affecting the labor market has greatly decreased, and can no longer be considered a major contribution to the gender wage gap. Rather, the gap is mainly the result of a glass ceiling constructed from the socioeconomic and cultural pressures that restrict working mothers within their chosen occupations. The problem is not unequal pay for equal work, but rather the limited availability of equal work for mothers, who are stunted in their careers because they carry the majority of the burden of childcare. Female doctors are more likely to choose lower-paying specialties, such as pediatrics, over higher-paying ones, such as cardiology, which also tend to be less flexible time-wise. Blau and Kahn’s study also found that women face a stronger likelihood of career interruptions due to childbirth, which lessens chances of promotions and career advancements. Another NBER study tracked 3,000 MBAs from the University of Chicago over a decade of their careers, and found that, straight out of college, before the pressures of childcare, women made, on average, 12 percent less than men; a decade later, this gap increased to 45 percent. These facts illustrate the devastating effects that the constraints of motherhood have on women’s careers, the solution to which is federally-mandated paid parental leave. An analysis of census data showed that after the passage of paid family leave laws in California, more workers took paid leave, and mothers who took paid leave were more likely to return to work than those who didn’t. In addition, they saw an average increase of five percent in their hourly wages. Critics of paid maternity leave argue that maternity leave actually contributes to the gender pay gap, citing statistics from another study by Blau and Kahn on the female labor supply, which show that, after the 1993 FMLA was passed, the job retention rate of women increased by 5 percent, but the likelihood of promotion decreased by 8 percent. At first, this would seem to corroborate claims that paid maternity leave would increase the gender pay gap, and that the solution is to not federally mandate paid leave. However, the issue with this near-sighted strategy is that it perpetuates the faulty notion that eliminating paid maternity leave would lessen the gender pay deficit. Women do not have a realistic choice to continue working immediately after childbirth; to do so would jeopardize both their own health and that of their newborns. Without mandated paid maternity leave, new mothers will still take leaves of absence of varying length. However, the same study shows that women will be more likely to leave the restrictive workforce without paid maternity leave, explaining the increase in job retention after FMLA. The decrease in likelihood of promotion is the economic effect of mothers carrying the majority of familial burdens. When only unpaid leave or paid maternity leave is made available to workers, male employees, especially ones of low income, are less likely to take leave in order to care for their newborn. When only women are pressured to take maternal leave, it is only their careers that are affected. For these reasons, it is misleading to claim that the passage of FMLA decreased the likelihood of promotion for women by eight percent. It is not the existence of paid maternity leave that leads to the wage gap, but rather the lack of paternity leave that is the true cause. In fact, historically, after World War II, European countries used mandatory maternity leave as a means to force women out of the workforce and try to return them to their “proper” domestic sphere. The fact is, for the vast majority of parents in the United States, it is only women who carry the burden of childcare, and it is only women who are penalized in their careers for the decision to start a family.


Paid paternity leave would enable fathers to share in the family burden, alleviating the need for women to sacrifice career performance to care for the newborn. However, even with the option of paid paternity leave, men, due to cultural stigma, are often unwilling to take leave. To combat this, several countries have offered fathers incentives to encourage them to take paternity leave, such as higher pay or a “use it or lose it” approach, in which a certain amount of a family’s paid leave can only be taken by fathers. After Quebec implemented such policies, the amount of fathers who took paid family leave skyrocketed from 10 percent in 2001 to 80 percent in 2011; subsequently, mothers were more likely to return to work and work full-time. The United States, with neither paid maternity nor paid paternity leave laws, has fallen behind the rest of the world in efforts to prevent the burdens of parenthood from suppressing solely the careers of mothers, an issue that U.S. politicians have failed to prioritize appropriately. The issue has been brought up among policymakers, most recently in President Obama’s State of the Union address in January, and in a proposed Senate bill in March. However, there has been little to no progress made since 1993. It is important to remember that unregulated paid parental leave can easily become de facto maternity leave; policies must encourage an extensive cultural shift in order for the family burden to sit more equally on the shoulders of both mothers and fathers. Although the United States has come a long way from 1963, paid parental leave is only the first step of many in the creation of a truly egalitarian labor market.