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Guest Post – “It’s About Time” by Mindy Fried

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I came across this essay by sociologist Mindy Fried about the lack of paid family leave in the US versus how common it is around the world. Also on my mind is the failure of the Paycheck Fairness Act to pass the US Senate this week. I think the two are related. Opponents of the bill say gender discrimination doesn’t exist anymore, and no new laws, like the Paycheck Fairness Act, are needed. They argue that even though men outearn women in general, and mothers in particular, women put themselves in poorer paying jobs as a trade-off for spending more time with children or needing greater flexibiity. Therefore, whatever gap may exist is explained by women’s choices.

I disagree. Women do most of the unpaid family carework in this country. Culturally and socially, it is more acceptable for women to do it than men. Is that fair? At the same time, women have to support themselves and their families. They work without the benefit of paid sick days, or family leave, or even the abiltiy to ask for an alternative schedule. Is that fair? Is it even a good idea? Paid leave is a political issue, a gender issue, and as Dr. Fried shows below, a class issue as well. Repeating the mantra that there is no gender discrimination won’t make it go away. And refusing paid leave to new mothers and new fathers won’t stop them from having babies or being in the workforce. If it did, the consequences would be catastrophic. As Dr. Fried says, “It’s about time…”

It’s about time…

A sociologist buddy of mine just told me that she may be using my book on parental leave in a new class she’s teaching (Taking Time: Parental Leave Policy and Corporate Culture). While I should be overjoyed, I am not. Why? Because the book is 12 years old and it’s sadly as relevant today as it was twelve years ago!

Taking Time is based on an ethnographic study. In other words, I went native and hung out for a year in a financial services corporation I called Premium, Inc., studying its corporate culture. I wanted to understand how the culture of the workplace affected employees’ attitudes towards the company’s generous parental leave policy and ultimately, who used it.

I happened to be doing this study right after the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which was the first bill President Clinton signed in 1993. The bill mandates employers to allow their workers – women and men – to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to parent their newly arrived baby (biological or adoptive). This federal policy provided basic rights to Premium employees, in addition to the company’s own parental leave policy.

To my dismay, I found a strange and insidious blend of economics and culture that seriously undercut the use of parental leave policy at Premium. Of the 143 parental leave takers I interviewed, 140 were women and 3 were men! Women in high-level positions barely took leaves. In fact, only two female vice presidents took five weeks; the three senior female managers took five, nine and 10 weeks respectively. As one female senior manager said,

“Old-time management in the company still has an old mind-set about women and work and family…The women who generally get to the higher top are the women who don’t have the children. You have to sacrifice something to get there.”

Not a single male senior manager took a parenting leave. Instead, new fathers tended to take 2-week vacations after the arrival of their new baby. One male manager I interviewed told me,

“It was simple economics. I was going to work full-time and (my wife) was going to work part-time. We joke about her job being a hobby because she’s hardly covering the cost of daycare.”

Most men facing new parenthood didn’t even consider taking time away from their jobs to parent a newly arrived infant, because they were worried their careers would suffer. For them, the cultural norms of the workplace mitigated against taking time to do what is still considered “women’s work”. Simply put, for both high-level female and male managers, babies and briefcases didn’t go together. This cultural norm trickled down to the organizational culture…

The largest group of workers who used the leave policy were women in non-management positions. Professional non-management women took an average of 10 weeks leave, two weeks less than the 12 weeks allowed by the FMLA! And nonprofessional women – women who earned less than those in professional positions – took an average of 8 weeks, with half taking 7 weeks or less. These women simply couldn’t afford to take longer leaves. Unless they had family lining up to care for their babies, much of their time was spent worrying about setting up quality, affordable childcare. This short leave-time falls far short of the six-month leave that T. Berry Brazelton, child development expert, recommends to support parent-child bonding.

In a 2009 study of current leave-taking practices, researchers found a a similar picture. There has been a very small increase in the amount of leave-time taken in the birth month (5.4%) by “highly educated and married mothers” and an increase of 13% in the next two months (Han, Ruhm and Waldfogel, 2009). Single mothers, on the other hand, are less able to afford unpaid leave. And fathers continue to take extremely short leaves or none at all.

This data confirms what I found in my study 12 years ago: that uppaid leave policy discriminates against those at the lower rungs of the income ladder who cannot afford to take longer leaves. With the absence of a mechanism to replace workers’ wages during the leave period, non-management female employees shorten their leaves; management employees take short leaves; and men don’t take parental leaves at all.

While lower paid workers would be the most obvious beneficiaries of paid leave, in fact, ALL employees would benefit from such a policy. The U.S. is the only wealthy nation in the world that does not offer parental leave, according to political scientist Janet Gornick, who conducted a cross- national study of parental leave policies.

“The United States has the least generous parental leave policies of all 21 economies compared in the study. We pay a high price for our meager policy, because parental leave improves the health and well-being of children and their parents, and paid leaves provide families with crucial economic support at such an important time.”

Gornick and her colleagues report that European countries, led by Finland, Norway and Sweden, rank far ahead of the United States in providing guaranteed parental leave, with Sweden ranking highest for gender equality and parental leave practices. Germany also offers a generous paid leave policy, and four countries show high levels of both generosity and gender equality: three Nordic countries (Finland, Norway and Sweden), and Greece.

We have a long way to go in the U.S.! California finally passed paid parental leave legislation in 2002, and the U.S. military even offers paid leave to its members. But a recent effort to extend paid leave to civilian employees got stuck in the Senate. And other initiatives to create paid leave through “baby unemployment insurance” – in which some small portion of the state unemployment insurance fund would go towards a paid leave fund – has hit a wall, given high employment rates.

Nonetheless, the issue will not go away for the thousands of mothers and fathers around this nation who want to spend more time with their babies.

It may seem counterintuitive to push for paid parental leave in this economic crisis, especially as people are being laid off from their jobs. You might argue that laid-off workers have more time to hang out with their kids anyway. And besides, why would employers want to add incentives for their existing labor force to take time away from the job? But those laid-off workers will return to the workforce when the economy improves, and those employers should care about creating humane work environments that don’t burn out their workers. And why shouldn’t we join the rest of the Western industrialized world in providing social policies that support mothers and fathers in the workplace?

Without a federal policy that provides the foundation of support for leavetaking, I fear that we will continue to see the patterns of leave-taking I found in my study twelve years ago. And that’s just not fair.

Meanwhile, my sociologist buddy asked if I could come to her class to talk about my book. I wish it were old news…

Mindy Fried, M.S.W., Ph.D., is a sociologist with over 20 years of experience conducting research, teaching and doing policy analysis on work and family issues (e.g., early care and education policy, parental leave). She is a Co-Principal of Arbor Consulting Partners (www.arborcp.com), where she consults to a diverse range of organizations, designing and conducting evaluation research and policy assessments, as well as providing technical assistance on research design issues and strategic planning/organizational analysis. You can find Mindy’s original post on her blog here.