On some dimensions, the US is a beacon for women’s rights around the world – women now comprise more than half the workforce, graduate form high school at greater rates than men, and have broken down barriers in all spheres of society – the US Navy announced in February that women can serve on submarines.
On the other hand, the US is failing mothers (and fathers). In a country that prides itself on family values, the absence of paid parental leave has become a stain on the country’s record.
The US is one of the only countries in the world that does not have paid parental leave policies. To my younger colleagues who are considering starting a family, I say, be very careful who you work for – unless you are working for an enlightened company that will step up to the plate and voluntarily cover your paycheck while you are on leave, you will have a hard time paying your rent while you are on leave, because you will get no pay. Zero. Sorry, you’re on your own. Good luck paying for diapers. But hey, congratulations on your new arrival – family is the cornerstone of our society!
The US is in not so good company in its lack of a paid parental leave; the only other countries with no paid parental leave are: Swaziland, Liberia, Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and… Australia. Australia has passed a law that will start covering leave in 2011, soon making the US the only industrialized nation with no paid parental leave. (See a chart of countries and their leave policies here).
On top of it, even unpaid leave is considered a privilege in the US. If you happen to work for a small business or a startup, you may get no leave at all. The Family and Medical leave Act guarantees 12 months of unpaid leave, but that’s only if your organization employs more than 50 people. That leaves a lot of people not covered. This New York Times article suggests that 40% of women (!!!) don’t qualify for unpaid leave – and 78% of those who qualify can’t afford to take the leave. A handful of states in the US, among them California, have created disability leave programs of their own under which women can get doctors to classify pregnancy as disability in order to offer unpaid leave to a greater proportion of women.
Some countries are rightly moving beyond paid maternity leave to include paternity leave, further leaving the US in the dust in its recognition of families. In several countries, fathers can share the paid leave with mothers, acknowledging the reality of dual-career parents. Contrary to the stereotype, the list of countries with extended paternity leave policies is not limited to Scandinavian countries – Canada, Israel, Germany, Russia, and Spain are examples.
Some argue that we can’t “afford” paid parental leave as a country. For companies, there is plenty of literature showing that the positive impact on paid leave on talent retention, increased employee engagement, and enhanced productivity outweighs the cost. For society, there are strong infant and mother health benefits to paid leave and fewer mothers who end up losing their jobs and going on welfare (this paper from the Center for Law and Societal Policy details the societal benefits of various family-friendly policies).
The US has a choice. It can join the rest of the world in recognizing the need for paid parental leave. Or it can stop pretending that family is an important value.