Paid Parental Leave Would Change Society: We Just Don’t Want It To

Jasmin Joseph
Nov 4, 2019 · 4 min read
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Coco (1993) © Dana Lixenberg

Every year, the World Economic Forum produces their Global Gender Gap Report, which analyzes and ranks 149 countries on the basis of four dimensions critical to equality: economic participation and opportunity (earned-income and labor-force rates, gender ratios in professional work), educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment. A “global index” of gender equality is calculated by averaging the gender gaps in the four dimensions. In the year 2019, the global index was an impressive 68 percent, but this figure is misleading.The overall global gender gap index is bolstered by health & survival (95%) and educational attainment (96%) while women’s political empowerment is at a dismal 22 percent, the result of a small, but steady decline. This is due in large part to a lack of female political representation in North American nations, like the United States which, out of the 149 countries, is ranked 98th. Politics — defined by long hours, late-nights and frequent travel — is notoriously rigorous and family-unfriendly and, to be successful, women have to make big sacrifices to compete. Women are closing economic and professional gaps but doing so by operating in a man’s world. Things will not change until women have the institutional power to shape the societies they’re born into.

Any campaign for empowerment centered around individual gain rather than collective liberation and empowerment is bound to produce these results. In fact, the shortcomings of the individualistic “Lean-In” feminism are exactly this: a few rich or powerful women, who often pride themselves on being exceptional, hold up global averages by “thriving” within the oppressive boundaries of an existing system, and in doing so make no material efforts to change it and make it feasible for other women. While they accumulate financial and social capital, a generation of women grow up still subject to the political and corporate forces bent on exploiting and controlling them.

By design, American laws, industry and policy work together to exclude women’s participation in politics and the economy. The largest proxy for this tendency is our nation’s policy, or lack thereof, for universal, paid parental or family leave. Society primes women for partnering, mothering or caretaking, and laws attempt to constrain their ability to opt-out of them by limiting bodily autonomy through access to contraception or abortion. When women forego these roles (even if temporarily), to pursue business or politics, the workplace’s response is to make doing both so difficult as to become its own punishment.

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New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden in the UN Assembly with her partner and son, September 2018. ©CNN

There are well-trodden social norms that reinforce this, starting with encouraging men to solely be providers and ridiculing them for being even part-time caretakers. The New York Times’ recently published “The Motherhood Penalty vs. the Fatherhood Bonus” confirms this bias on the institutional level. Research found that in the workplace men are rewarded for signaling they have children, and women are punished for these same indicators. Male involvement in the lives of their children signals increased commitment to their jobs, while for women it indicates the potential for flakiness. Men’s earnings increased if they had children, and women’s earnings decreased with each additional child. Of OECD nations, the United States uniquely embodies this pitfall. Among 41 other developed nations, the US ranks dead last in policies for parental leave with a whopping ZERO weeks of guaranteed paid leave for new parents. Policy introducing universal paid parental leave and family leave has widespread public support. Pew Research found that 82% of people, both men and women, supported paid time off for mothers and 69% supported paternity leave for fathers. Similarly, a study conducted by Supermajority Education Fund found that 73% of women said that the ability for all new parents — mothers and fathers — to get paid time off from work to care for a new child would be necessary to reach women’s equality. If the majority of Americans want this, why hasn’t it happened yet?

Paid parental leave has not been made law because of a lack of popularity or ability but because it would force us to radically change our ideas on the role of women and men in society. Legislation mandating the provision of time for new parents to spend time raising their new child, normalizes being a parent as an inextricable part of the individual who also happens to work at your company. It changes the dynamics of the workplace by upending the foundations of heteronormativity and male-domination by shifting the responsibility of caretaking away from “the mother” and distributing it between “partners.” The same working culture that says parents need flexibility to take care of their children, says that employees need flexibility to take care of themselves. Adopting a national policy for paternal and family leave would force us as a nation to reevaluate our priorities with respect to work, family and leisure — and force us, then, to institutionalize those priorities.

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