According to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, employers with more than 50 employees are required to provide at least 12 weeks of leave for new parents – that is, unpaid leave. Almost a year ago, I had the opportunity to attend a briefing on paternity leave by the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. An issue that I was vastly unaware of intrigued me and I have been following the concern in the media ever since.
The United States is the only developed country that does not offer paid maternity leave. How is this problematic? Well with the dynamic shifting of family roles, women are entering the workforce at increasing rates. In fact, 70 percent of all mothers work and almost half are the sole or primary breadwinners of their families. Twelve weeks of unpaid leave can be a significant financial setback for any employee, but especially so for parents. With the skyrocketing prices of childcare, new mothers are being forced to quit their jobs entirely or shorten their periods of leave. According to a recent article by the Washington Post, childcare fees for two children in a childcare center are higher than annual median rent payments in every state.
This is not just a humanitarian concern, but an economic one as well. Just a few years ago, Japan was experiencing a similar issue. Japanese women were experiencing high workforce drop out rates – approximately 7 out of 10 women would leave their jobs after bearing their first child. Japan found that by encouraging mothers to return to work through expanding paid maternity leave, they could boost their GDP by as much as 15 percent. According to the US State Department, if American women worked the same rates that men did, the US GDP could grow an astonishing nine percent.
However, while expanding paid maternity leave may sound like a promising solution, as long as mothers are the only parents to take leave, workplace discrimination could actually worsen, resulting in women less likely to pursue a career. Where paid maternity leave is almost unheard of in the United States, paid paternity leave would be revolutionary. The White House Council of Economic Advisors reported that nearly a third of men have no option to take leave, paid or not, for the birth of a child. Even when men reduced their hours due to family reasons, they lost 15.5 percent in earnings over the course of their careers, compared with a decrease in earnings of 9.8 percent for women. Research has shown that fathers who take longer paternity leaves are far more likely to perform certain daily childcare tasks nine months later than those who take no leave. Men who play an active role in the parenting of their children early on are also more likely to be more involved for years to come and their children will have healthier outcomes because of it. Regardless, there is still a devastating stigma towards taking paternal leave. Unwritten workplace norms can discourage men from taking leave even when offered.
When parents feel a sense of security with taking leave, not only do their children, and hence future generations, benefit, but their productivity levels increase as well. They become more invested in their companies ultimately improving employee retention rates and positively affecting the bottom line. Currently, only three states – California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island – have created policies requiring employers to give both parents paid paternal leave. Facebook now has 17 weeks of paid leave for both parents, and the military just increased their weeks of paid leave from six weeks to 12 weeks (they only increased paternity leave from 10 days to 14 days).
When private industries begin to put the families of their employees first, they will experience exponential improvements. While women have made substantial progress in all career fields, many individuals still believe that work is only optional for women. As family and gender roles continue to shift, employers will be forced to make accommodations if they want to recruit elite staff. While providing paid family leave may cost the employer in the short-term, the long-term benefits will far exceed the costs. Employees are an investment and now their families are too.