By Sabrina Willard
The United States is the only developed country in the world that doesn’t federally-mandate paid maternity leave, and this oversight has been linked to a slow, yet steady, across-the-board decline of women in this country’s workforce. Economists are attributing the drop to decisions by some post-partum workers to remain at home, or not begin a career at all, knowing that they might eventually have to take a significant amount of time off for childrearing. While a woman choosing to stay at home is by no means a new phenomenon, there is this sense that we are somehow backpedaling from the victories that laid the foundation for women entering the workforce during the last several decades.
In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Claire Cain Miller points out that “stalled policy goes a long way toward explaining why women stop working, and new approaches could help women complete the decades-long transition into the labor force.” She cited a report published this month by the White House Council of Economic Advisers, which encourages the government to adopt policies that will foster more female participation in the workforce. According to the council, over the last decade, European countries enacted various family-friendly policies like paid leave, subsidized childcare and support for part-time work, explaining why the US has fallen behind these countries in female labor force participation.
The theory is that women will be more likely to go back to work after having children if their employer has policies in place to support childcare. This idea is supported in studies like the one conducted in California in 2011, the first state to mandate paid parental leave, by Maya Rossin-Slater and Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University and Christopher J. Ruhm of the University of Virginia. It not only found that new mothers were more likely to return to work when they were offered this incentive, but that they were working more and being paid a higher income one to three years after heading back to the office.
“When people have paid leave, it just gives them a path back to work, whereas when they drop out of the labor force and stop working in order to take a leave with a young child, they come back slower,” said Betsey Stevenson, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
Declining participation in the workforce doesn’t just cast a shadow on the efforts of women like my mother who paved the way for us to enter the workforce in historical proportions. It may have economic implications for the US as well.
In the upfront to a 2013 study, Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn of Cornell University reported that the US had the sixth-highest female labor participation rate among 22 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in 1990, yet its ranking had fallen to 17th by 2010. Blau and Kahn stated that “the expansion of ‘family-friendly’ policies, including parental leave and part-time work… explains 28-29% of the decrease in US women’s labor force participation relative to these other countries.”
So much in the latter half of the last century has contributed to women’s success outside of the home. But, now that we’ve moved past the mere initiation and acceptance of females in this country’s labor force, it is time to explore how our policies can better encourage their long-term professional contributions to the economy. We need all employers to stand united behind family-friendly policies like paid leave, which has already proven to be beneficial in the individual states and countries where it has been implemented.