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It’s time to stop referring to maternity leave as “generous”

By referring to maternity leave as generous, we’re doling out unearned credit to reluctant employers in a country that lags embarrassingly far behind not just other industrialized countries, but the whole world.

It’s time to stop referring to maternity leave as “generous”
[Photo: Joey Thompson/Unsplash]

I recently sat in a meeting where a representative from a benefits provider described a company’s “generous maternity leave policy.” That policy offers six weeks of leave at full pay, or 12 weeks at half pay.

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The representative–a man who did not work directly for the company about which he spoke–continued on about how generous this policy is, because, he reasoned, most companies he’s encountered don’t offer any sort of maternity leave. “You should all be grateful,” he said. “This company is being very generous to you.”

It was not the first time I had heard maternity leave talked about in this way. Pull up any job posting and see how the company sells its employee benefits.

In the United States, women are guaranteed exactly zero weeks–zero days, even–of maternity leave under federal law. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires companies with 50 or more employees
to preserve a woman’s job during 12 weeks of maternity leave, but there’s no requirement that those women be paid (many take out short-term disability to maintain some income), and no such requirement exists for companies with fewer than 50 employees.

The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world to have no federal legislation that requires employers to offer paid maternity leave to their workers. This is in contrast to 70% of over 8,000 women InHerSight surveyed who believe that more than eight weeks is a reasonable length of time for paid maternity leave (and the nearly 40% said 12–24 weeks is reasonable). Their ideal amount of time off is paltry compared with the U.K., for example, which provides 52 weeks of leave with 12 weeks fully paid, or Germany, which provides 14 months at 65% pay.

By referring to maternity leave as generous, we’re doling out a heap of unearned credit to reluctant employers in a country that lags embarrassingly far behind not just other industrialized countries, but the rest of the world.

Generosity is characterized by a noble or kindly spirit, as per our friend Webster. Yet generosity also suggests that the recipient is undeserved, that there’s some measure of kindness debt accrued on the part of the giver.

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The reality illustrates otherwise. The International Labour Organization (ILO) calls for a minimum of 14 weeks leave at no less than two-thirds pay so that mothers can “maintain themselves and their child in proper conditions of health and with a suitable standard of living.” The top 10 countries with the largest maternity leave policies surpass the leave requirements by a minimum of 42%.

Generous is the wrong term for what we do not provide to mothers in the U.S.

There are better ways to talk about maternity leave. When discussing a company’s policy, we should keep two things in mind.

Discuss the benefit in plain, non-congratulatory terms. For example, “Employees at this company receive six weeks of maternity leave at full pay or 12 weeks at half pay.”

Discuss the company’s leave policy as it stands in comparison to the rest of the world. You might say, “This policy provides 16% less time and 34% less income than the minimum standards set forth by the International Labour Organization.”

Context is key. Without an understanding of how the U.S. and individual companies stack up against the rest of the world, employers can’t acknowledge a weak–or even a strong–maternity leave policy as generous. They have to see it for what it is.

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Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a content strategist at InHerSight.

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