Parental Leave: Beyond Either Or

Establishing a universal parental leave and benefits program should be the next big push toward gender equality in the United States so that women no longer have to choose between being a professional and being a mother. 

Women are graduating and heading into the workforce at higher rates than men, yet on the whole they still seem to receive lowball offers for starting salaries in the same positions. After a few years of employment, the earnings gap between women and men only widens. So why have we reached this impasse in the professional advancement of women in the United States? 

Many women, when faced with the decision between becoming high-powered professionals or stay-at-home mothers, opt out of the labor force even after attaining high levels of education or early career success. For many couples, this is a commendable choice and can be more affordable than hiring a nanny or enrolling their children into a day care center. But this detour limits the number of women poised for higher levels of leadership. And for many, this assumed either/or decision can be agonizing. Some ultimately settle on freelance work, part-time positions or less ambitious tracks. Others lose momentum once their children are of preschool age and never reenter the work force with quite the same energy. For those who would like to juggle both roles, the options are disappointingly limited.

Lisa Belkin of the New York Times argued in her 2003 piece “The Opt-Out Revolution” that the Second Wave feminists of the sixties would look at the state of women today and be shocked at how little progress has been made toward reaching gender parity in the political and economic realms of our society. 

However, as Gloria Steinem points out in a recent interview with Charlie Rose, it could be that the women’s rights movement has not stalled. Instead, it has reached the stage where activists must push for reform in the institutions that dictate policies toward women. As Steinem puts it, the pervasive belief in American exceptionalism has created a blind spot in our national consciousness that prevents us from realizing where the United States still requires improvements to achieve an egalitarian society.

And in fact, Ms. Steinem is right. Per the World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap Report 2010,” which measures levels of inequity between men and women, the United States ranks 19th overall out of the 134 countries. And according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, in 2011 the United States ranked 70th in the world, tied with Turkmenistan, in the proportion of seats women occupy in Congress.

These figures are problematic, as Marie C. Wilson, founder of The White House Project, explains in her book, “Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Rule the World” because until women represent a proportionate number in leadership roles, a predominantly male perspective will continue to dominate all aspects of policy decision-making, implying that women’s issues will likely remain off of the table and gender inequality will persist.

This gender-biased mindset has manifested itself in the way motherhood is addressed in the halls of Congress. The United States is one of only two countries in the developed world that lacks a national parental leave program. Only one weak attempt has even been made in the early nineties after nearly ten years of wrangling in Congress. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act requires that working women be granted twelve weeks' unpaid time to care for a newborn or adopted child. But the law exempts businesses with fewer than fifty employees, including more than half of U.S. companies.

According to a 2008 report from the Families and Work Institute, 16% of companies with at least 100 employees provide full pay during maternity leave. That number has decreased by 11% since 1998. For those provided with some pay during maternity leave, their time off is usually supplemented with unused sick or vacation days that could be necessary for their well-being later on.

To move beyond the either/or choice, young mothers need to be supported with a national parental leave and benefits program. If companies are to invest in the potential of women as human capital, they must be willing to extend maternity leave so that women can return to those jobs once they are ready, rather than opting-out of positions indefinitely because the company maternal leave program is simply not enough.

Women and men are reproductively different: recognizing this distinction allows for true equality by acknowledging that certain policies need to be in place to enable women to fully participate in work and family life. After all, it is hardly a unique need if over half of the population requires it. Without it, our policies toward the work force are not gender neutral and even favor men.

If opting-out is really what has prevented women from reaching top management positions and equal pay for equal work, and if we purport to be an egalitarian society, a national effort to offer parental leave and maternal benefits is the next stage to achieving equality.

We’ve made it to the boardroom table ladies, now let’s stay there.


Veronica Weis is an AIF President William J. Clinton Fellow in the New Delhi office of