I participated in a meeting of multinational corporations on the topic of parental leave a few months back. Summing up the feeling in the room, one member of the group said, “It’s like with environmental issues: We don’t like the government to tell us what to do. We’ll come up with our own solutions.”
And some corporations are doing just that. Netflix, Adobe, Twitter and others are making headlines—offering extended, paid parental leave—and many more are ready to take a progressive stand. But in nearly all these cases, there is a catch: Extended, paid leave is only offered to highly-paid staff at the upper end of the pay scale, and doesn’t always support men’s caregiving.
I asked the group, “Why shouldn’t all workers—men and women—at all pay levels have access to such leave policies?” There was a long silence. And I knew what that silence meant all too well.
The reality is that despite certain high-profile advances, and endorsements by presidential hopefuls, the current parental leave system in the United States is outdated and insufficient when compared to what American families want and need. National surveys find that 56 percent of working moms and 50 percent of working dads find it very or somewhat difficult to balance work and family life.
Three-quarters of professional dads worry sometimes or often that their jobs prevent them from having as much time to parent as they would like. And they may be right: only 12 percent of private sector workers in the U.S. have access to paid family leave through their employers. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for mothers and fathers to care for a child at birth or when ill. While the law applies nationwide, more than 40 percent of American workers are excluded. And even when workers are eligible for FMLA leave, let’s be honest: For most low-income families and many middle-income families, unpaid leave means no leave at all. They simply can’t afford to take it.
In a promising turn, the District of Columbia City Council recently introduced a bill that, if passed, would represent the most progressive and sensible parental leave policy in the country, going even further that states such as California and Rhode Island that already offer limited paid leave. The D.C. bill supports paid leave, equal for women and men, and for same-sex couples, and includes leave for workers who care for elderly or ill family members. It would be paid for primarily by a 1 percent payroll tax for employers in the District.
This is a landmark bill, not only because it extends paid leave to a broader demographic— making leave more accessible and realistic—but also because it allots equal, extended leave both to parents and to single caregivers.
Some disclosure: My organization, Promundo, advised City Council members on the specific provisions of the parental leave bill introduced in Washington, D.C. We presented data on why it makes sense for family leave to be equal for men and women, and for same-sex couples, and why it needs to be 16 weeks.
I am an employer in the District that voluntarily offers 6 weeks of paid leave for fathers and mothers and that would gladly pay the 1 percent additional payroll tax to support leave for all families.
And I am a father, and a sometimes-caregiver for aging parents. I am also a man who thinks his wife deserves a salary equal to his.
D.C.’s bill is a game changer because equal leave for women and men can help women enter and stay in the workforce. Most European countries and Canada have already realized that if we want women to work at the same rates as men do, and at the same salaries, we need parental leave to be equal for women and men. A study in Sweden found that women’s income rises by 7 percent for every month of paid leave that a father takes.
And it isn’t just women’s income that rises when access to parental leave is equal. For corporations and politicians (and all of us) interested in economic growth, consider this: U.S. GDP would be 9 percent larger if women worked at the same rates as men. Countries that have been successful in increasing women’s participation in the paid workforce and in reducing the wage gap between men and women have nearly always done so by, among other things, offering paid leave for mothers and fathers.
Studies from Sweden to Japan find that policies supporting equal involvement by fathers and mothers at home lead to happier families, and are key for getting women into or back into the workplace after childbirth. And corporations in the U.S., Sweden, and elsewhere report that paid leave leads to greater worker retention and greater worker satisfaction for women and men.
And for our country and families to thrive, we don’t just need more women contributing in the paid labor force. We also need more men sharing the work at home. A study in the U.K. found that when fathers take leave, they are more likely to be involved in the daily care of children later on, balancing the burden between both parents. Research from advanced economies around the world confirms this: Couples who share caregiving equally are more likely to stay together, to have less conflicted relationships if they separate, and to raise children who are more likely to thrive.
So, yes, I believe the D.C. parental leave bill deserves to pass. More than that, it is a model, backed by global evidence, for where the rest of the country should and must go.
We as a country believe in fairness for our families. Politicians and voters from both parties believe that we must continue to invest in Head Start and quality education for children. We know the importance of the first years of a child’s life and of investing in early childhood. We believe women should be equal to men and that their salaries should reflect this. And we believe same-sex couples and workers deserve these same rights.
Paid, equal parental leave for all workers doesn’t resolve all these things. But without paid and equal leave for women and men, we won’t resolve any of them. A few progressive IT and financial services corporations shouldn’t have to blaze the trail alone—and can’t. We need our government to back its belief system.