The Nanny State Shouldn’t Baby Working Parents

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

“Can family leave policies be too generous?” asked Claire Cain Miller in The New York Times yesterday. Cue the eye-rolling from a certain sort of feminist – expanding America’s paid parental-leave policies has long been on many gender-progress wish lists. European countries such as the U.K., with its generous 39 weeks paid time off for new mothers (plus an additional 13 weeks unpaid leave available), are often cited as the holy grail of family- and women-friendly policies.

Last month, the White House Council of Economic Advisers blamed slow economic recovery on women’s declining labor force participation, suggesting that expanding mandatory maternity-leave policies could help rivet all these women back into the job market. But Miller points to evidence that longer leave mandates aren’t the panacea they might seem. In countries with extensive maternity-leave guarantees, women’s total labor force participation is higher, but their professional status relative to men is lower.

In one study, published last year in the American Economic Review (an earlier copy is available here), two Cornell University economists looked at family-leave policies in 22 countries. The researchers, Francie D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, were attempting to understand why U.S. women’s workforce participation – one of the highest among Western countries in 1990 – had become one of the lowest in this cohort by 2010:

We find that the expansion of “family-friendly” policies including parental leave and part-time work entitlements in other OECD countries explains about 29% of the decrease in US women’s labor force participation relative to these other countries. However, these policies also appear to encourage part-time work and employment in lower level positions: US women are more likely than women in other countries to have full time jobs and to work as managers or professionals.

Knowing that younger female workers could legally take up to a year off work and require a part-time schedule thereafter could lead to “statistical discrimination against women as a group,” Blau and Kahn concluded. “Thus, while the (labor force participation rates) of women in other countries have risen relative to the United States, such increases may have come at the expense of advancement once they are in the labor force.”

Is this a tradeoff we want to make? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean we’re resigned to the status quo on family leave, either. Miller notes that “pulling levers in both policy and culture” could make a difference, and I would argue that the latter is the place to start. Even a small change in daddy-leave norms could benefit families, reduce the career penalty on mothers, and lead to a positive shift in our gendered view of caregiving. But if the U.S. government simply stepped in and mandated that men be allowed paid parental leave too, few would probably take it. Employer expectations and bullshit masculinity codes aren’t going to shift just because the state says they can.

As with maternal leave policies, there is only so much you can accomplish by legislative fiat here. Without getting women, men, and employers on board with expanding or shifting family leave policies, laws mandating such will only limit women’s wages and advancement potential in the workforce. And low wages and dead-end careers are the very things that make women more likely to drop out of the labor force when they become moms.

(Lots of recent Dish on paternity leave here)