During the Working Families Summit last month, first lady Michelle Obama said the gathering, which aimed to spark a discussion about much-needed updates to workplace policies, felt like the beginning of a “new movement” for Americans. The president himself noted that a new national mentality was in order:
“Family leave, child care, workplace flexibility, a decent wage — these are not frills, they are basic needs. They shouldn’t be bonuses. They should be part of our bottom line as a society.”
It’s true. More than 60 percent of U.S. families (PDF) with children have two working parents in the household, a large jump since 1965, when only 40 percent of families with children had both parents working. Despite the increase, employment has not adapted to make life easier for working parents — particularly working women.
“We have not had any policies since then to adjust,” Bryce Covert, the economic policy editor at ThinkProgress, told me. “A family of three in the 1950s could live on minimum wage and be above the poverty line.” A family making things work on $7.25 an hour is unfathomable now.
Because of this, Covert says, fewer American women enter the workforce than in other countries that have more family-friendly policies. The U.S. government’s only widespread attempt to ease the lives of working families has been paltry: The Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, entitles workers to 12 weeks — mind you, unpaid weeks — to take care of a newborn or an ailing family member. But what good are 12 unpaid weeks to a family that is struggling to make ends meet? How many average American men and women would be able to take this time off without being crippled financially?
Not much, and not many. Working families — and women, struggling with what often feels like an indelible gender gap — are confronted with an outdated employment culture in desperate need of a makeover. Such an overhaul must begin with national policy.
A nation far behind
The United States is one of only four countries in the world that do not have mandatory paid maternity leave for employees — and the only high-income country (Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea are the other three). According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, most of the “100 Best Companies” provide paid maternity leave, and many provide paid time off for adoption or paternity leave, but only a few provide pay for the duration of the full 12 weeks mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act. Not surprisingly, lower-paid workers are the least likely to be offered paid leave.
Women are most often the ones to stay home with their children, and many opt out of work altogether because they can’t strike a healthy work-life balance. According to a Pew report published last year, women are much more likely than men to experience family-related career interruptions. As a result, 27 percent of women have quit a job in order to take care of a child or family member, as opposed to 10 percent of men.
Contrast the U.S. with Sweden and Norway, two countries that have among the best parental leave policies in the world, totaling more than a year of paid leave for both parents combined. According to a 2013 report from the World Economic Forum (PDF), the four highest-ranked countries in terms of gender equality — Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden — have closed between 81 and 87 percent of their gender gaps. (Their performance was determined by health, educational attainment, economic participation and political empowerment.) Family-friendly policies in Nordic countries have also enabled higher birthrates and high female workforce participation. It’s no coincidence that in Norway women make up 40 percent of parliamentary seats (PDF) and 40 percent of board seats in listed companies, in contrast to 17 percent of Senate seats and 16.9 percent of board seats in the U.S.
The lack of an overarching paid leave policy can have harsh consequences. A single mother I spoke to recently told me her previous employer — ironically, a women’s rights organization — made it clear to her that being a mother was a problem and provided zero flexibility when it came to her hours. When she asked to adjust her schedule by 15 minutes to pick up her two young children from school, it became a complicated ordeal involving the company’s human resources department. On paper, she said, the organization was “women-friendly and family-friendly,” but in practice, it was a different story entirely. As a result, she took very few sick or vacation days, even when her children were ill. Not only did it cause stress for her at home, she also felt undervalued as a worker.
Women should not be forced to choose between having children and pursuing a career and men should not be chastised for their desire to be active parents.
“Policies are helpful and important, but policies will only get you halfway there,” she told me. There needs to be a marked cultural shift, she said, and part of that involves encouraging men to take (and demand) family leave as well.
Helping dads helps moms
A large portion of the Working Families Summit was devoted to the challenges of working fathers. According to a White House report released in conjunction with the summit, fathers today have a significantly more active role in child care and at home than they did in the 1970s, and a majority experience work-family conflict. While paid maternity leave is crucial for the well-being of mothers and families, paternity leave is equally important in addressing gender inequality.
A 2013 working paper (PDF) from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that fathers who took paternity leave had higher involvement in child care activities. Fathers in Australia, Denmark and the U.S. were more likely to be involved in child-care-related tasks when they took two or more weeks of leave, compared with fathers who did not take leave. If men are not given the option to stay home with their newborn children or have a flexible work schedule to meet the needs of their families, women will continue to bear the brunt of household labor and the faulty distinction between men’s and women’s work will persist. (Not only that, but the lack of paternity leave discriminates against same-sex couples.)
“Federal policy that promotes parental leave generally, and provides enough leave for fathers, too, is a way of actually enabling fathers to take on domestic work without having to give up all of their income,” Sheila Bapat, the author of “Part of the Family?: Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights,” told me. “Women are still saddling most of the domestic labor. But ensuring that more fathers have the option of taking time off to care for their families can’t hurt.”
Bapat points out that, culturally, men are still not encouraged enough to participate in child rearing and domestic work. Earlier this year, for instance, Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy was ridiculed by his colleagues for taking several days of paternity leave. Changing this mentality, Bapat says, requires a combination of legislative advocacy and cultural shift within businesses. We have a ways to go: According to the Families and Work Institute (PDF), only 14 percent of U.S. companies offer paid paternity leave.
A new bottom line
Currently, only three states — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — have laws that guarantee paid family and medical leave. All three states fund their programs through payroll taxes; they are administered through disability programs. While many employers believe that providing paid family leave will hurt their bottom line, studies show that increasing paid leave and flexibility at work increases productivity, helps recruit more talented workers, lowers turnover, reduces absenteeism, boosts profits and cuts costs.
And some companies are beginning to see the benefits of offering leave to their employees. Ernst & Young introduced its paternity leave policy 12 years ago. It offers two weeks of paid leave to all new fathers, and up to six weeks for fathers acting as the primary caregiver. The company believes the policy helps retain employees, saves money on new hires and increases employee engagement. Not only are such policies good for businesses, they will help women feel more secure in the workforce and encourage a more equal distribution of labor.
The Working Families Summit offers one view of a more equitable future. Women should not be forced to choose between having children and pursuing a career, men should not be chastised for their desire to be active parents and people should not face financial insecurity simply because they choose to start a family. Let’s hope the president keeps his promise about establishing a new bottom line for workplace parity — because many Americans will be watching.