Do Maternity Leave Policies Hurt Mothers?

glass_blogimage_june-20141by Christy Glass

In a recent article published in Forbes (here), business writer Tim Worstall wonders why family-friendly policy advocates support paid maternity leave policies. In his view, such policies are not just ineffective but harmful to women because they damage women’s professional standing—and ultimately reduce their wages. Quoting a woman CEO who shares his views, Worstall argues that mothers should limit their time on paid leave or risk losing the confidence of their employer. So why on earth would anyone argue for more or better paid leave policies?

Worstall is correct to suggest that wage penalties associated with motherhood account for most if not all of the wage gap between men and women. In fact, sociologists estimate that mothers pay significant wage penalties even after controlling for work experience and job characteristics (here). However, blaming paid leave policies—or, worse, blaming women for taking advantage of such policies—misses an important part of the story and risks holding mothers responsible for the discrimination they face in the workplace.

Important work by sociologists suggests that motherhood penalties result from the conflict between who employers want workers to be—hard working, productive and totally committed to work—and who they believe mothers are—committed to children and family above all (here). Because employers view mothers as less devoted to work than non-mothers, they tend to discriminate against them in recruitment, hiring and promotion (here).

But are paid leave policies to blame for this discrimination? Is the answer to eliminate such leaves, thereby eliminating a source of employers’ lack of confidence in mothers’ abilities.

Social science says no.

While there is some evidence that long leaves may increase penalties for mothers, recent work suggests that the impact of family-friendly policies on women’s opportunities depend on cultural attitudes (here). When society supports mother’s employment, paid parental leaves are actually associated with higher earnings.

The availability of paid leave may also reduce bias against mothers. In experimental research, the presence of family supports—including paid leave laws and policies—reduced the likelihood that mothers would be viewed by evaluators as less competent and committed than their peers while the absence of such supports led evaluators to view mothers as less capable (here).

And lest we forget: the U.S. is one of the only countries in the world that does not guarantee paid maternity leave to workers. Yet, motherhood penalties remain large and significant here—and penalties are largest among low wage workers, who are the least likely to work in jobs that offer paid leave (here).

Taken together, this evidence suggests that paid leave policies are not the cause of motherhood penalties at work. And when policy advocates support the expansion of paid leave programs or when mothers take advantage of such programs, they are neither naïve nor responsible for the discrimination and bias they face.

And most importantly, the solution doesn’t lie in eliminating parental supports. Instead, the solution lies in expanding the range of such supports in order to make work and family life more compatible for all workers—men and women, mothers and fathers.

There are a number of ways to do this. Guaranteeing paid leave in the U.S. would be a good start. Doing so would expand parents’ ability to balance work and family and likely reduce employer bias against mothers.

Outside of the U.S., policy makers have experimented with a number of other novel family policy solutions. For instance, some countries provide incentives for men and women to share paid leave, offering longer and more generous supports to families where both parents take leave. Such policies are designed to encourage childcare by fathers and remind employers that parenthood is not just women’s work. Still other countries combine generous paid leave with publicly funded childcare, a combination shown to expand the work opportunities of all mothers.

Regardless of the specific policy path we advocate for, let us remember that family supportive policies—including paid leaves—signal a cultural commitment to fairness and equality. And such a commitment is a critical factor for reducing motherhood penalties in paid work.

Christy Glass is Associate Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the Undergraduate Program in Sociology at Utah State University.

Cross-posted at the Gender & Society Blog.

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