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New Paternity Laws Challenge Age-Old Gender Norms

Mom and Child

By Liza Lansing and Jessie Abrams

In recent years, there has been much debate over whether women can attain gender equality by “leaning in” to their roles at home, in the workplace, and as mothers. The plight of men who try to balance similar roles is most often left out of these conversations. Countries have begun to address this void by giving new fathers paid time off as well as allowing parents to share paid parental leave. These progressive policies have yielded benefits not only for the father and child, but also the mother who can retain equal participation in the workforce. Unfortunately, the United States trails most of the industrialized globe when it comes to paid parental leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), signed into law 20 years ago, does not offer any compensated leave to mothers or fathers, ranking it among the least generous countries in the world. As a result, American men and women are more often forced to follow traditional gender roles. The United States can only close the gap and grasp the possibility of “having it all” when legislation promotes the empowerment of women in the workforce and men in the home.

The FMLA, adopted in 1993, grants new mothers and fathers 12 weeks of unpaid leave, making the United States the only industrialized nation that does not mandate paid leave for mothers of newborns. The act’s lack of utility is compromised by the fact that many people simply cannot afford to take an unpaid leave. Moreover, 40% of workers cannot benefit from the law because it only requires companies with 50 or more employees to comply. Additionally, to get the benefit, employees must also have worked for the company for at least a year and logged 1,250 hours within the last 12 months.

Some states have chosen to supplement this comparatively minimal legislation with paternity leave laws of their own. In 2002, California became the first state to guarantee six weeks of paid leave to new mothers or fathers. New Jersey and Rhode Island followed, expanding the amount of paid leave to 12 and 13 weeks, respectively. Other states are proposing similar policies. Despite the expanding reach of the FMLA, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 11 percent of all private industry workers have access to paid family-leave in the United States. This financial burden compels people to make a choice between engaging in the workforce and engaging in the home.

In contrast, other countries have devised paid parental leave policies that have proven to be highly impactful both for the family and the economy as a whole. The 2013 World Economic Forum reported in October that countries with the strongest economies are those that keep women in the workforce after giving birth. The United Kingdom most recently recognized these benefits when it announced a November 29, 2013 progressive law that enables couples to share parental leave after the birth of their child, promoting equal distribution of parenting responsibilities. At present, new mothers in the UK are permitted maximum of 52 weeks off, while new fathers are entitled to only two weeks of statutory paternity leave. Under the new act, the mother must still use the first two weeks, and then she can either transfer the remaining 50 weeks to her partner or, alternatively, parents can each take 25 weeks concurrently or opt for one to take a period of time off and then the other. Of the 50 weeks permitted, 39 weeks are paid leave at the statutory minimum. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that the entitlements under the new legislation, scheduled to take effect in April of 2015, will help women avoid feeling conflicted between staying home or returning to work: “Women deserve the right to pursue their goals and not feel they have to choose between having a career or a baby.”

The UK is not alone in recognizing the value of fathers who are involved in childrearing and mothers who remain in the workforce. Sweden’s parental leave policy, recognized internationally as the premier design for gender equality in care-giving and wage equity, grants couples 16 months off work following childbirth and entitles them to earnings- related benefits of up to 80% of their income. Sweden has also adopted a “daddy quota” that reserves part of the parental leave period exclusively for fathers – if the father does not take his allotted leave, the family loses it. Norway and Iceland exhibit similar generosity in their quotas. In Norway, both parents take a two-week leave and then divide 46 weeks of parental leave paid at 100% or 56 weeks paid at 80%. Iceland offers each parent five months of paid parental leave, plus an additional two months that either can use. In Germany, new parents can take up to 14 months of parental leave at 65% of their salary. Australia, Brazil, France, Canada, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and Spain also offer paid maternity and paternity leave. In such cases, paternity leave is a form of “social engineering: a behavior-modification tool that has been shown to boost male participation in the household, enhance female participation in the labor force, and promote gender equality in both domains.” That is, it influences domestic and parenting habits as they are forming, setting a precedent for years to come.

Comparing the FMLA to the paid parental leave policies of other countries shows an indisputable lag. The result of this lag is the unequal distribution of responsibility between care giving and labor market participation. Our European counterparts have nearly eradicated these issues through progressive leave policies. However, the United States does not have the infrastructure for a comprehensive social insurance system; thus, legislation reform is an up-hill battle. Other actions must be taken to rectify the legislative inadequacies and challenge the age- old assumption that women, not men, should remain home once they give birth.

In an article published in The New York Times entitled, “When Mom and Dad Share It All,” journalist Lisa Belkin attempts to answer these questions through interviews with couples who strive to be “parenting peers” – parents who equally distribute domestic labor and childrearing. According to Belkin, these couples stand for the simple message that “[g]ender should not determine the division of labor at home.” What she concludes, however, is that gender is a barrier, even among couples who desperately want to share housework and childcare equally. According to Belkin, the disparity in housework and childrearing standards between men and women, the disinclination of employers to support fathers’ efforts to stay at home, and wage inequality that compels men to work longer hours than their spouses, mean that “sharing it all” might simply be unattainable. In essence, “ideal does not match reality” when it comes to shared parenting.

Whether or not generous and progressive parental leave policies will balance the roles of parenting and allow women to break free of their stereotype is unclear. What is clear, however, is that the United States must work toward achieving the economic and social benefits that paid parental leave policies offer in other countries. Not only is legislative reform needed, but more women need to be in office to advocate for shared parenting, funds need to be appropriated to programs that support working women, and employers need to provide day care opportunities to reduce the financial burden of working parents. There is no justification for the dubious distinction the United States has earned as being one of the few industrialized nations that does not offer paid leave.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of PPR.

Image (Attribution License) courtesy of Bob Whitehead on Flickr.

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