Expert Commentary

Women’s access to family leave is not improving, but men’s is

Access to maternity leave after the birth or adoption of a child is not improving for women, though the number of men on leave is growing. Fathers are also more likely to receive paid leave.

Mother and baby

The United States is the only developed country not to offer women paid maternity leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 gives some employees the option to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but many do not qualify. Others cannot afford the lost paychecks, or fear absence could cost them their jobs. The U.S. Department of Labor says only 12 percent of private-sector workers receive paid maternity or paternity leave.  

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised a policy change: “We can provide six weeks of paid maternity leave to any mother with a newborn child whose employer does not provide the benefit,” he said during a campaign rally in Pennsylvania.

For now, paid benefits are mandated by a handful of states. But even the most generous states do not offer full pay to new mothers for anything close to the 14 weeks recommended by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization. (The National Conference of State Legislatures lists state laws.)

According to a new paper in the American Journal of Public Health, the number of American women taking maternity leave is not changing, but the number of fathers on paternity leave is rising (together these absences are often known as “family leave”). Moreover, the benefit is largely accruing to women who are white and educated.

Jay Zagorsky at the Ohio State University used data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (which is used primarily to calculate the unemployment rate) from 1994 through 2015. The period saw rapid economic growth and many women enter the workforce. Some of his findings:

  • The number of men on leave grew from 5,800 per month in 1994 to 22,000 per month in 2015.
  • The number of women on leave changed little over the study period (around 273,000 per month), even as births rose and fell. Zagorsky found “no statistically significant trend over time in the rate of women on maternity leave in either monthly or yearly data.”
  • Men were far more likely to be paid during their leave than women, at an average of 66.1 percent across the whole period compared to 47.5 percent for women.
  • The number of men whose leave was paid grew almost twice as fast as the number of women: 0.44 percentage points per year for men and 0.26 percentage points per year for women.
  • A number of data underscore how women on leave were statistically different than the women who gave birth during this period:
    • 63.3 percent of babies were born to married women, but 75.5 percent of mothers on leave were married.
    • 56.5 percent of births were to white women, but 68.8 percent of mothers on leave were white.
    • 21.7 percent of births were to Hispanic women, but 12 percent of mothers on leave were Hispanic.
    • 20.8 percent of births were to women with less than a high-school education, but 5.7 percent of women on leave had less than a high-school education.
    • 49.7 percent of births were to women who had attended at least some college, but 71.6 percent of mothers on leave had attended at least some college.
    • The average age of a women on leave is 2.4 years older than the average woman who had given birth.
  • The adoption of family paid leave policies in a few states “did not appear to have any statistically measurable impact on the national number of people on leave.”

Zagorsky confesses surprise at the findings, which are not attributable to women leaving the workforce. “This suggests, but cannot prove, that the benefits of the large economic expansions did not flow to women with newborn children,” he writes. (Because of the way they were collected, the data are unable to show the total length of leave for mothers or fathers.)

Other research

About 82 percent of Americans say women should receive paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child, according to the Pew Research Center; of those, 41 percent believe women should receive 12 weeks or longer. Of the 69 percent who believe men should receive paid leave, 18 percent say the leave should be 12 weeks or longer. Meanwhile, 15 percent of Americans say men should not be able to take any paternity leave, paid or unpaid; about 3 percent say the same for women.

Women are now the breadwinners in 40 percent of American households with children, says a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, up from 11 percent in 1960.

The U.S. is one of only four countries (out of 167 studied) that does not offer paid leave to mothers after they give birth or adopt a child, according to a 2010 report by the International Labor Organization. The three others — Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland — rank near the bottom of most development indices.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development regularly updates its research on family leave in developed countries.

The National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes key birth statistics and demographic trends each year.

A 2017 paper in the Review of Economics of the Household measures how the number of hours a mother works negatively affects quality time with her children.

A 2017 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research studies the future economic benefits to children whose parents are married.

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