The United States is the only country of the world’s leading 34 economies to not offer paid parental leave
Balancing the demands of work and family have never been easy for parents. Despite the glacial progress on equality in the workplace and at home, the balance is harder to come by than in recent decades. The founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law, Joan C. Williams reported this in the Washington Post (2/11/13):
In a 2011 study, the Families and Work Institute found that 60 percent of fathers in dual-earner households say they experience some or a lot of work-life conflict, compared with just 35 percent in 1977. Meanwhile, the level of work-life conflict reported by similar working mothers has not changed significantly in three decades.
Maybe men are better at expressing themselves now. Or maybe women are more accustomed to the parenting stigma in the workplace. This stigma on parents in the workplace—especially dads—is exacerbated by an unparalleled lack of parental support in the private and public sector. Of the 34 countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development)—the most developed countries in the world—only the United States does not offer paid parental leave. No wonder there’s a stigma. Some states, like California and New York, provide for it, as do some employers, but the FMLA mandates 12 weeks of protected but unpaid leave for each parent. By not allowing paid time off to raise a newborn, the United States is effectively discouraging it. The effect, according to a 2009 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, is this:
In the absence of paid parental leave policies, traditional gender roles that involve women as “caregivers” and men as “providers”, and the typically lower earnings of mothers (relative to fathers) in the labor market, create strong incentives for women to reduce their employment and take on a large majority of child care responsibilities. The most obvious problems associated with such outcomes are that women bear a disproportionate burden of child care responsibilities and pay both a short- and a long-term penalty in the labor market. A related issue is that traditional gender roles and labor-market outcomes work together to deprive men of the opportunity to participate actively in providing infant and child care.
This sentiment is echoed as by Williams in the Washington Post earlier this week. Referencing articles she’s editing for the Journal of Social Issues, Williams asserts that “Men face as many struggles when it comes to using flexible work policies — if not more — because child care, fairly or unfairly, is still seen as being a feminine role.”
Though men are spending more hours helping out at home, they’re strongly discouraged from working any less. The recessionary hangover has compounded the headache. The pressure of this workplace ethos puts working men in a bind. From the Washington Post article:
In 2003, one group found that men who ask for family leave suffer more negative reactions than women who ask for the same. The next year, another study found that men who took even a short time off for family reasons were given lower recommendations and poorer overall performance ratings. A few years later, researchers found that as long as a father can avoid looking like he has child-care responsibilities, having kids actually helps his career. He is given higher starting salaries than a childless man and is held to lower performance and punctuality standards.
The new research goes further by trying to address why men experience such stigmas. For instance, in one case, participants were asked to rate men and women who took family leaves and those who did not. If the employee was a man and took time off, he was less likely to be recommended for promotions, raises or high-profile assignments. What became clear was not just that men were penalized for taking leaves, but why. They were seen as bad workers precisely because they were thought to have traits traditionally viewed as feminine: being weak, insecure, emotional or naïve. In other words, the flexibility stigma is a femininity stigma.
Let me iterate: “researchers found that as long as a father can avoid looking like he has child-care responsibilities, having kids actually helps his career.” So be a dad but don’t act like a dad. Sounds like the 50s. How does such counterintuitive thinking, such a Catch-22, become commonplace?
It starts at the top. The lack of support for parents by the United States and most private-sector employers in effect reduces the importance on parent-infant bonding. Worse, parents as workers feel jeopardized when they do take the scant government support allotted them.
Alone and Not at The Top
To get an idea how other countries–the most developed in the world, not welfare-states on the brink of bankruptcy–here’s a graphic from the OECD report from last July.
Additionally, dual-earner households are the most common form of arrangement in the United States and in the majority of OECD countries, according to another OECD report cited by American Progress.
By comparison to our combined 24 weeks, Sweden—one of the most progressive and egalitarian countries in terms of gender—entitles its parents to 480 days of leave, well over half a year for each parent. While fathers only account for 20% of it, each gender is allocated 60 non-transferrable days of leave. All but 90 days are paid at 80% of the salary, up to $65K.
There is no way American taxpayers would go for the 56.6% top tax rate in Sweden, which is often ranked at or near the top on quality of life polls. No way I would go for that, either. But we should still look their way as an example. Earlier this month, The Economist called the Nordic countries “the next supermodel.”
“The Nordics cluster at the top of league tables of everything from economic competitiveness to social health to happiness. They have avoided both southern Europe’s economic sclerosis and America’s extreme inequality.”
The economic benefits of paid parental leave are:
*greater attachment to the work force for women and more flexible arrangements for men
*increased wages for women (thus reducing the need for public assistance)
*greater freedom and encouragement of father-infant bonding time (which could lead to increased rates of paternal abandonment and all the societal costs associated with it)
Citing the efficiency of the public sector, The Economist said, “A Swede pays tax more willingly than a Californian because he gets decent schools and free health care.”
And more time off to tend to his family and lessen the stigma of parents at work, which creates a more equal and productive society, it has been argued.
Photo: Flickr/Lance Shields