MomForce Network

By: Daria Heimer, human resources management professional and working mother advocate                         Balance

In comparison to the rest of the developed world, it is jolting how far behind the U.S. has fallen in terms of maternity leave and enabling working mothers to sustain a more flexible work/life balance, particularly after giving birth or adopting. With so much discourse pertaining to American women “having it all,”   it seems as if the government and the large majority of employers are floundering behind in terms of helping to support women remaining in the workplace after they have given birth or adopted a child, especially if they have multiple children. The issue is exacerbated particularly among women in low to middle income ranges or those that live in a region with a high standard of living where the cost of child care equates or exceeds income; that calculus is intensified during periods of economic turndown. In this respect, I consider the lack of flexibility pertaining to family friendly policies and achievable work/life balance to be a prevalent reason why women leave careers after having heavily investing the skills that would help them succeed.

This pandemic issue has contributed to nearly one in ten highly educated women dropping out of the workforce to care for their families (Young, 2015). According to research conducted by the Pew Research Center, this growing trend may be less about making a choice to opt-out of having a career and more about being forced out due to the challenges associated with balancing work and family in the U.S. workforce. Research conducted by the Center for Work-Life Policy supports that among those surveyed that had left their careers, fully 69% would not have done so if their workplace had offered greater flexibility in work arrangements.  Furthermore, in two different European maternity leave studies conducted by slate.com (and published in the Economic Journal), it was found that infant death rates dropped considerably and was attributed to an extra 10 week maternity leave extension. Study researchers assessed that the beneficial length of time off for both mothers and their babies is approximately 40 weeks or roughly nine months off in contrast to the U.S.’s average of three (Young, 2015). In comparison to Europe, the U.S. is lagging in three crucial areas which are further perpetuating the trend of women exiting the workforce after starting families:

 

  1. The 12 weeks provided through the Federal Maternity Leave Act ( FMLA) is not sufficient: The act provides for 12 weeks of unpaid leave after having a baby, but only for women in organizations that 1) have at least 50 employees and 2) have worked at least 1250 hours in the year prior to taking leave. Approximately 3 months off may seem sufficient to many, however in reality the 12 weeks is not adequate for most. A significant majority of women do not have the financial security to go 12 weeks unpaid and are compelled to return even before the time off is up. It is particularly hard on women that have had a C-section or suffered complications, as well as those that are breastfeeding.

 

  1. It is impacting the economy: Women that struggle to achieve a work-life balance after having children are more likely to leave the workforce indefinitely. As recently as 1990, the United States had one of the top employment rates in the world for women, but it has now dropped significantly behind many European countries (Young, 2015). After climbing for six decades, the percentage of women in the American work force peaked in 1999, at 74 percent for women between 25 and 54 but has dropped since and is 69 percent today (Miller & Alderman, 2014). Numerous countries such as Switzerland, Australia, Germany Canada, Japan and France have surpassed the U.S. out of the top ranking position for women’s participation in the work force during their prime child-bearing years. Additionally, Business Week has recently published a shocking statistic, (courtesy of the United Nations’ International Labor Organization) “there are only two countries in the world that don’t have some form of legally protected, partially paid time off for working women who’ve just had a baby: Papua New Guinea and the U.S.” (Young, 2015).

 

  1. It is hindering the ability to retain a competitive labor force and the ability to compete in a global marketplace: Below are some surprising facts from other countries that further illustrate the U.S.’s stagnation (Young, 2015):
  • In the U.K. women receive 52 weeks of maternity leave after the birth or adoption of a child, 39 of which are paid. Protection of part-time workers and other policies aimed at keeping women employed
  • In France, women are paid at their full salary for 16 weeks, and are eligible to receive both more time and money from the government for Baby Number Two and beyond.
  • In Spain, new moms are paid at their full salary 16 weeks after giving birth. The only exception being that they need to be Spanish citizens who have contributed to social security for at least 180 days in the seven years prior to having a baby.
  • Italy provides women with 20 weeks of paid leave at 80 percent of their salary. And, as an Italian citizen, both mom and dad are able to take up to six months of the year off of work for the first 8 years of a child’s life while still receiving 30 percent of their daily salary.
  • Canada offers women the option of taking off a full year off of work after the birth of a child with guaranteed work security. Women receive about 55 percent of their salaries for 15 to 17 weeks depending on where they live.
  • In Russia, new moms receive 20 weeks of paid leave at 100 percent of their salary and receive half before the baby comes and half post-baby. Additionally they have a choice to extend leave to up to 18 months after the birth, at 40 percent of their salary.
  • Sweden offers 16 months of paid maternity leave with each child, and the entire first year of leave is at 80 percent of regular salary. An added bonus of having the option to space out parental leave throughout the years until a child turns 8 is offered.

The employment decline in the United States is striking, especially in consideration of having long preferred flexible labor markets in lieu of extensive benefits, like those in Europe in the name of job growth (Miller & Alderman, 2014). Europe’s extensive offering of regulations and benefits, including family leave policies, still exact a price on the Continent’s economies. Comparatively, it is apparent the U.S. approach has its costs, too: The free market leaves many families, particularly many women, struggling to find a solution that combines work and home life.

How might companies assist women who would like to return to the workforce?

While economic downturn and recessions experienced in recent years resulting in job elimination is partially to blame, a lack of family-friendly policies and lack of work/life balance options plays a substantial role; therefore an organization committed to providing greater flexibility and options for women that need a greater work/life balance will directly enable the retention of talented employees thus enhancing the ability to compete. It is difficult to derive a comprehensive solution that would apply to all employers, however a greater push for legislation to be enacted that addresses the difficulties that young working mothers are facing and offering greater protection and options would be a good first step, as noted by Young. Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D., NY), for instance introduced a bill called The Family Act to congress in 2013. The bill would ensure that employers, regardless of their size, offer three months of paid leave to new parents at 66 percent of their salaries. The bill has been stalled in Congress for over a year now. Gillibrand, pointing out that 80 percent of Congress is older and male, reportedly told Business Week that, “the issue isn’t being raised because too many of the members of Congress were never affected by it. They’re not primary caregivers. Most members of Congress are affluent and are able to afford help or able to support their [wives]. It’s not a problem for most of them.” (Young, 2015).

In a November 2014 study conducted by the New York Times/CBS/ Kaiser Family Foundation Poll, among nonworking adults aged 25 to 54 in the United States, 61 %of women said family responsibilities were a reason they weren’t working, compared with 37 percent of men. Of women who identify as homemakers and have not looked for a job in the last year, nearly three-quarters said they would consider going back if a job offered flexible hours or allowed them to work from home (Miller & Alderman, 2014). For many women with children, it seems, the choice regarding leaving the workforce includes weighing a complexity benefits and drawbacks. The challenge is insurmountable in part because there is a deficiency of programs and policies in the United States to support women in their prime career and childbearing years. Contrastly, in Europe policies have continued to develop and evolve in recent years offering greater flexibility and options such as subsidized child care, generous parental leaves and taxation of individuals instead of families, which encourages women’s employment. Nearly a third of the relative decline in women’s labor-force participation in the United States, compared with European countries, can be explained by Europe’s expansion of policies like paid parental leave, part-time work and child care and the lack of those policies in the United States (Miller & Alderman). Furthermore, “a stay at home parenting stint needn’t toss a job applicant out of the running” ( Willkie, 2015). Women seeking to reassimilate into the workforce that have taken a couple of years off may encounter hiring bias; therefore it is critical that employers are vigilant in terms of ensuring that recruitment efforts are impartial. Employers should not assume that a candidate didn’t keep abreast of a field while remaining at home ( Wilkie, 2015). According to Ken Matos, senior director of research for the Families and Work Institute, said that if an applicant has been “reading the right reports and journal articles, they may be more caught up than someone who’s so consumed with the day-to-day grind that they don’t have a broad perspective” on industry trends. Further, a candidate that has been seeking higher education in effort to enhance skills and to remain unto date in their respective field is worth looking into.  It would be to a forward-thinking organization’s benefit to consider evolving leave and family policies through implementing some of the aforementioned suggestions to better assist women that are aspiring to return to the workforce but are lacking the option and flexibility needed to do so.

Young, H. (2015 January 20). How America is Failing Working Moms. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/hilary-young/how-america-is-failing-mo_b_6496462.html

Wilkie, D. ( 2015 January 12). The ‘Mommy Dead End.’ Retrieved from http://www.shrm.org/hrdisciplines/staffingmanagement/articles/pages/stay-at-home-moms-hiring.aspx

Miller, C., & Alderman, L. ( 2014 December 12).  Why U.S. Women Are Leaving Jobs. (The New York Times).  Retrieved from http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/12/14/upshot/us-employment-women-not-working.html?referrer=&_r=2

 

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