Why America Hates Maternity Leave

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candidate-604933-2013-11-07-16-56-56For most American women, pregnancy has been said to be one of the greatest roadblocks to professional success. The debate in most states is framed as a constant struggle between women’s career ambitions and their desire to be involved mothers, but there has been plenty of evidence suggests it’s not the act of having children that hurts women’s careers, but actually, the workplace policies that are designed to support new parents. In particular, the year-long maternity leave that is now the most prized benefits offered to working mothers in Canada and other health-care benefit friendly countries.

When the federal government doubled the unemployment benefits offered to parents more than a decade ago, it was hailed as one of the most important public policy advancements aimed both at helping workers navigate the transition into parenthood and ensuring enough of the all-important time for new infants to bond with their parents.

But that is where things started to break down…

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While the government was careful to allow moms and dads the right to split the 37-week “parental leave” portion of its year-long benefit program, that quickly morphed into a full year away from work for mothers, often followed a year or two later by another year-long leave for a second child. Nearly 90 per cent of new mothers took a parental leave, averaging 48 weeks, according to a 2009 Statistics Canada study. By comparison, just 11 per cent of men outside of Quebec, which has its own paternity leave program, took any paid time off work, averaging just 2.4 weeks.

Few in Canada would argue that paid, job-protected parental leave is a bad thing for families, although the U.K. government quietly considered scrapping the country’s year-long maternity-leave program in 2011 as a way to boost economic growth. At the time, the female head of a right-wing think tank that championed the proposal argued that maternity benefits “too often lead to a downward spiral of earnings and career, a life of near-dependence on the state?.?.?.?and probably an impoverished old age.”

That’s an extreme view and there is ample evidence that countries without any paid parental-leave benefits suffer from having fewer women in the workforce. But the debate over maternity leave raises a number of uncomfortable questions: Could a full year off be too long? Are parents shooting themselves in the foot when they use their hard-won benefits as an opportunity to completely shut themselves off from work?

In practice, the workplace gender imbalances that maternity leave has encouraged hold profound implications for women’s long-term earnings and career advancement. In a 2010 study examining why women continue to earn 20 per cent less over the course of their careers than their male colleagues, TD Economics found that as much as half of the wage gap was due to women taking time off work to raise children. Women lost three per cent of their earnings for each year they were away from work, a penalty that persisted long after they went back to their jobs. While meant as a one-year break, parental leaves also have a way of stretching beyond a year, with some women opting to follow up their paid leave with an unpaid career break of a month or even years, putting them even further behind. A penalty of three per cent a year might sound like a small price to pay for that time off, but the study’s authors estimated a woman who works for six years at a $64,000-a-year job, takes three years off to raise kids and then goes back to work full-time for another 20 years, would lose $325,000 over the course of her career. That includes the money she received from collecting unemployment benefits on maternity leave.

What’s more, they found that the wage penalty was three times greater for women who had taken multiple short absences from work—jumping in and out of the workplace to have more than one child—than those who took a single long break, even if it amounted to the same total time away from work. Employers, they said, tended to view multiple absences as a sign that female employees aren’t committed to their job. That pay gap between men and women also has implications for the broader economy. A 2009 report from the University of Canberra estimated that closing Australia’s 17 per cent gender pay gap would add roughly $90 billion to the country’s economy.

The consequences of women taking a year from work are often far greater than money. A study last year by Cornell University economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn compared the careers of women in the U.S., where federal laws allow for just 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave, to Western countries, including Canada, that had long paid leave benefits for parents. They found that while women were more likely to drop out of the workforce in the U.S., those who kept working were far more likely to be in high-paying jobs, senior management and traditionally male careers like science and engineering. America’s most famous female tech executives, Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, both admitted they took almost no break from work after giving birth. Equal numbers of men and women work as managers in the U.S., while in countries with long, paid maternity leaves, half as many women are in management as men. Many women in those countries also end up in low-paying and part-time jobs. In Canada, two-thirds of part-time workers are women, a number that hasn’t budged in 30 years. In short, family-friendly policies such as maternity leave may encourage women to settle for lower-paying jobs, the Cornell economists concluded, while in a perverse twist America’s sink-or-swim workplace culture has encouraged more women to stick it out on the career ladder.

The so-called motherhood penalty at work may be well established, but researchers say the underlying assumption that women are simply choosing to scale back because of a desire to spend more time with their children is deeply flawed. “The issue has been framed in some media outlets that women are basically answering the call of motherhood and wanting to be there for their children and are dropping out,” says Souha Ezzedeen, a professor of human resource management at York University, who studies gender issues in the workplace. “On the other hand, sound scholarly research suggests that they’re pushed out because of the level of inflexibility in the workplace, especially when you’re moving up the ranks.”

Last year, Florida State University professor Irene Padavic and Harvard Business School professor Robin Ely published a paper recounting their experience being hired by a large professional service firm to find out why so many of its female employees were leaving. After interviewing 100 employees, they found that both men and women complained about the punishing 65-hour work weeks. The turnover rate, they found, was actually the same for both men and women, with men equally as likely to complain about work-life balance as women. The only real difference between the sexes was that female employees were far more likely to take advantage of some of the firm’s family-friendly policies, including maternity leave—policies supposedly designed to protect their careers, but which ultimately got them crossed off the list for promotions.

Management later rejected their conclusions, they said, because their recommendations weren’t focused exclusively on women. The belief “that gender was the firm’s primary HR problem, that the nature of the gender problem was women’s difficulty balancing work and family, and that men were largely immune to such difficulties,” wasn’t backed up by evidence, they wrote. Instead, the notion that women, but not men, have a biological imperative to spend less time at work had become a convenient “diversion” that allowed the company to ignore larger problems in its corporate culture.

Indeed, there is a growing body of research suggesting men may face an even greater career backlash from staying home with children than women do, which may be one reason why so few opt to take a leave. In an issue devoted to the topic published last June, the U.S. Journal of Social Issues found that men who asked for flexible working arrangements were more likely to be laid off, while those who had taken time off work for family reasons earned 26.4 per cent less in the long-term compared to those who hadn’t—a larger penalty than the 23.2 per cent drop in earnings for women. The research suggests it’s the leave, and not the gender of the person taking it, that is the problem.

Some companies have started creating programs to encourage new mothers to stay connected with the office. The Toronto office of global PR firm Edelman launched a “maternity buddy” program in 2010 that pairs female employees on leave with a female coworker to meet for coffee or lunch and chat about new hires, big projects or office gossip. “We’re in an industry that has dramatically changed over the last several years,” says general manager Lisa Kimmel. “People were really struggling, not only to make that transition in terms of balancing all the new personal responsibilities, but also in terms of making sure the skills to do their job effectively were also polished and up-to-date, given that a lot changes in a year.”

Last year alone, 15 of the company’s 130 employees participated in the program. No one has quit and the bulk of the participants have since been promoted. Kimmel herself was a buddy to an employee who arranged to be involved with a particularly important new project that started after she went on maternity leave. Despite the program’s success, Kimmel says the company may launch a formal on-boarding program for returning mothers, similar to what they give to new hires, since many women feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of change that happened while they were gone. “Some people said, ‘I felt like I was starting a new job,’ ” she says.

Still, the pressure in Canada for women to shut themselves off completely from work for a year after the birth of a child can be intense. After finding herself bored and lonely during a four-month maternity leave for her first son, Reva Seth, a former corporate lawyer turned consultant and author, opted to take just two weeks for her second son. “I got really horrible responses a lot of times from people about why I wasn’t with my baby all the time after two weeks,” she says, even though as a self-employed consultant she wasn’t eligible for maternity-leave benefits at the time. Her experiences inspired Seth to write The MomShift, a book based on 500 interviews with women whose careers took off after having children, due to be published next month by Random House Canada.

The concept of a year away from work to care for a new baby was fine in a time when most workers could expect to spend their entire careers at the same company, often in the same job, she says. But fundamental changes to the Canadian economy are encouraging more women to become their family’s primarily breadwinner and forcing more workers, both men and women, into self-employment and temporary contract jobs.

Seth argues those trends are rewriting the rules when it comes to maternity leave. While changes to federal employment laws in 2011 now allow self-employed workers to claim parental leave benefits, few of today’s female entrepreneurs can afford to quit working for a year and let their professional network lapse. “The way we view motherhood is changing, underwritten by the seismic shift in how our careers are going to change completely,” she says.

The notion of combining work and maternity leave is gaining traction among many of today’s mothers who say that completely cutting themselves off from work for a year would be devastating to their career advancement.

Weeks after Kristin Taylor made partner at her Bay Street law firm in 2001, she found out she was pregnant. Having spent her entire career in corporate law, Taylor had watched other women at the firm return from long maternity leaves and struggle to adjust to the breakneck pace of change at the office. So before she went on leave, Taylor divided her clients into three groups: those she could delegate to co-workers, those important enough to have her home number in case of emergencies, and those Taylor judged so crucial to her success at the firm she actively worked for them while on leave. For Taylor, who didn’t receive unemployment benefits but continued to collect her salary from the firm while on leave, that meant spending an hour or two a day on the computer at nap time and taking calls while breastfeeding or at Gymboree classes. “I found it helpful to use my brain in a different way,” says Taylor, now a partner at Cassels Brock. “There were a couple of days when if I read, ‘Moo, baa and lalala’ another time I was going to lose my mind.”

It also made for a smooth transition when Taylor opted to return to work after five months on a modified four-day schedule. She found the strategy so successful that she repeated it two years later when she gave birth to her second daughter, opting to take on even more professional responsibilities during her seven-month leave. She says both employers and employees need to have realistic expectations when it comes how much involvement new mothers should have with their jobs after giving birth, so that maternity leave doesn’t become disruptive to either the company or women’s careers. “It’s ultimately really how you want your life to look, how you want parenting to look,” says Taylor, who is an employment lawyer. “But we get really hung up in a way that’s not always constructive about the sacred cow that maternity leave is. When, really, what we should be thinking of is the long-term career progression and how to balance that along the way.”

Critics point out that work-life balance policies such as parental leave are typically aimed exclusively at women and that if more men were encouraged to take time off work to care for infants, then women’s careers wouldn’t suffer as much. By introducing policies aimed specifically at fathers, such as Quebec’s five weeks of paid paternity leave exclusively for fathers, advocates say both governments and employers can make becoming a working parent less of a gender issue. “To the extent that workplaces get used to men, too, taking leave, that can only be a good thing in terms of gender equity at work and at home,” says University of Calgary sociologist Gillian Ranson, who has studied non-traditional families, including stay-at-home fathers and same-sex parents.

A federal government pilot project launched in 2012 that allows people to keep more of their unemployment benefits—including parental leave—if they earn money from work should also give women more flexibility to combine career and maternity leave and encourage more employers to reach out to new mothers during their time off. Even without any new HR programs or policy interventions, the growing number of women who are their family’s primary breadwinner means more couples may simply decide to split their leave benefits differently out of economic necessity.

For Julia, being cut out of the workplace loop while on maternity leave ended up becoming a blessing in disguise since it convinced her that her career would be better off in the long run if she tried to strike it out on her own. “If I were coming back, I’d be pretty hurt and disenfranchised. But I don’t feel that residual guilt that I would if they were treating me well and trying to get me to come to this barbecue or that client event,” she says. “So far, it’s just been empowering.”

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