Parental Leave: All Parents Are Created Equal
Updated: Oct 25
On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote. This was a full 72 years after the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 - the first women’s convention held to advocate for female suffrage. But, finally, women had a say in the politics of their nation- and they had fought hard for it.
Too often, however, the line between political and social equality gets muddled, and loopholes in legislation indirectly ensure that today, in the 21st century, women are still marginalized. This is primarily achieved by limiting women on the basis of a quality that makes them so wonderful: motherhood.
Out of 193 countries in the United Nations, only three do not mandate paid maternity leave: Papua New Guinea, Lesotho, and the United States.
In Germany, the government gives new parents 67 weeks of time off, and the parents are paid 67% of their salary for 10 months. In Iceland, parents are entitled to 39 weeks of parental leave, which is paid at 80% of the parent’s salary. These are but two of many developed nations that offer progressive parental leave (for both parents), as opposed to only maternity leave.
However, within the US, only Washington DC and six states offer some form of paid maternity leave: California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island. Some individual cities offer paid leave; many technological giants such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Netflix also offer paid leave for both parents. Yet, in refusing to enact a national statute protecting the rights of parents, the federal government has left the decision largely up to the states, which oftentimes leave it up to individual employers.
Whether intentional or not, American legislation indirectly supports the 1950s stereotype of the husband being the breadwinner, with his smiling housewife dutifully holding their baby at his side. There is currently a gender wage gap of 19%, largely due to many educated women having to quit their jobs because they were not offered paid maternity leave.
There is a very large discrepancy in the amount of paid leave for mothers and fathers offered amongst developed nations.
40 percent of women do not qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which grants 12 weeks of protected job leave, unpaid, at the federal level. This is either because women work in small businesses too small to afford unpaid leave, or because they work two or three part-time jobs.
Even for the 60 percent who do qualify for the FMLA, many families cannot afford unpaid leave. 25 percent of women are forced to return to work within just two weeks of giving birth, regardless of their physical and mental state post-pregnancy. In particular, racial and socioeconomic disparities are exacerbated by a lack of access to paid family leave, as families of color typically have lower median incomes and experience employment discrimination.
In the private sectors, only 12 percent of women have access to any form of paid maternity leave. The average length of fully-paid maternity leave in the US is only 4.1 weeks: by no means enough time to take care of a baby.
American women are indirectly told that they are more valued as mothers than as meritorious workers. As such, it is no surprise that one out of three American women quit working after giving birth.
Of course, men could theoretically also take care of their newborn(s); parenting should be an equal task, after all. In fact, maternity and paternity leave go hand-in-hand in the fight to achieve socioeconomic gender equality.
When men take paternity leave, women are relieved of part of the burden of caregiving responsibilities. This increases their ability to pursue paid work, which in turn augments female labor force participation and closes the income gap. As a culture, this also disproves the age-old stereotype that heterosexual couples do not parent equally; in turn, it will become less stigmatized for men to be involved in their family life and for women to be dedicated employees.
Just as importantly, American fathers want the option of paid paternity leave. Nine out of ten men are eager to take some time off work for the birth or adoption of their newborn child, yet 70 percent can afford to take only a maximum of ten days off of work. In California, after paid parental leave was adopted in 1997, the odds of men taking paid parental leave increased from 0.3 to 0.8 from 2004-2009.
(2019) In Denver, Colorado, protesters of both genders advocated for paid parental leave
Besides being the fair and humane option, federally mandated paid parental leave immensely benefits the economy.
Offering paid leave for both parents tangibly improves business productivity by boosting employee morale and increasing employee retention, which reduces the cost of replacing employees. After Google increased paid parental leave from 12 weeks to 18 weeks in 2007, the rate at which new parents quit fell by up to 50 percent.
Regarding the economy as a whole, paid parental leave ensures that parents are less likely to rely on public assistance benefits and more likely to be job secure. Paid maternity leave specifically increases female labor force participation, which contributes to much greater economic growth.
August 18, 2020 is soon approaching, and this date will mark 100 years since women were first given the right to vote. It has become clear, however, that the fight for gender equality is not near to being over.
Women are more than just mothers- they are intellectuals, they are hard workers, they are equals- and it is high time that U.S. law recognizes them as such.