Better Life Lab

The Case Against Maternity Leave

Gender-neutral policies assume that all workers—not just women and mothers—have basic human needs.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

On the 2016 campaign trail, candidate Donald J. Trump became the first major Republican party candidate to promise six weeks of paid maternity leave for mothers whose employers do not already provide it. In the ensuing chaos of the Trump administration, we haven’t heard much about this proposal, which is obviously a shame: With a scant 14 percent of all civilian workers currently getting some form of paid leave, a national paid maternity leave program could wind up covering a lot of women. Though six weeks isn’t much time to recover from the trauma of birth and bond with an infant, it’s certainly better than the current reality: One Department of Labor study found that 1 in 4 women return to work within two weeks after giving birth.

But let’s be honest: Paid “maternity leave” is a bad idea.

That’s because policies aimed at only one gender, such as maternity-only leave, don’t operate in the same way as neutral benefits such as paid vacation days, 401(k) plans, or paid family leave. Neutral policies assume that all workers—not just women and biological mothers—have basic human needs, which may include family or caregiving responsibilities. “Maternity leave,” as opposed to “family leave,” is a bothersome accommodation for a lesser worker and only serves to reinforce traditional gender roles.

In the 1940s, when the Women’s Bureau recommended that all pregnant women stop working six weeks prior to delivery and two months afterward, several states adopted laws making the time off a requirement in order to “protect maternal and child health.” But as legal scholar Lucinda Finley writes, because few leaves came with job security or pay, women were “protected” right out of their jobs.

Economic research has found that 38 percent of the persistent gender wage gap in the U.S. is due to “pure discrimination” related directly to traditional gender roles. Social science research finds that it’s not only mothers who are discriminated against but also young women, because one day they may become mothers. Women lose about 4 percent of income when they become mothers, because they’re still expected to—and do—shoulder the lion’s share of housework and caregiving. Men, meanwhile, enjoy a “fatherhood bonus” of 6 percent.

A neutral policy sets the stage for a fairer division of labor and opportunity at work and at home. For the proof, we can look to Iceland. Not long ago, on a trip organized for journalists by the Nordic Council to study gender equality, I met with Ingolfur Gislason, an associate professor at the University of Iceland. In a few PowerPoint slides, he showed how gender-neutral paid leave policies, done right, can transform society.

Iceland was relatively late in offering paid parental leave to both men and women. But by the time the country passed its law in 2000, it was able to learn from the mistakes of other European nations. In countries that offered lengthy leaves only to mothers, women were still bound by traditional gender roles and considered the primary caregiver, carried the bulk of housework and child care duties, and tended to work part-time, in lower-paying public sector jobs, or not at all.

A conservative government in Iceland ushered in a “use it or lose it” paid leave policy to create the expectation that men are caregivers, too. Now, new mothers get three months of paid parental leave, fathers three months, and the family three months to share. If the father doesn’t take his allotment, the family loses the time. (Single parents get six months.) Between 1997 and 2008, the number of Icelandic fathers taking parental leave shot from zero to 90 percent, before tapering off after the economic collapse; it stands now around 70 percent. Perhaps most importantly, the percentage of mothers and fathers equally sharing caregiving responsibilities rose from 42 to 70 percent.

“It never once occurred to me that I’d have to make trade-offs between work and home,” Hulda Thorisdottir, 42, a professor at the University of Iceland, told me one evening in Reykjavik while her children turned somersaults on the couch. Sitting next to her, her husband, Oskar Thor Axelsson, 43, a filmmaker, said being expected to take parental leave, unlike his father, changed him. “Now, you find yourself doing stuff that moms used to do,” he said, “but it’s given me a connection with my own children that I wouldn’t want to be without.”

Iceland ranks No. 1 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. Women make up half the parliament. The government in March introduced legislation requiring companies to prove they’re paying men and women equally for equal work in an effort to close the pay gap in five years. (Estimates put closing the gap in the rest of the world at 70 years.) Iceland has had a female president or prime minister for 20 of the last 50 years. About 85 percent of working-age women are in the labor force, compared to about 66 percent in the U.S.

On my Iceland trip, I interviewed historian Gudni Jóhannesson, a father of five who was elected president in August. He said he was miffed that people asked his female opponent, Halla Tómasdóttir, how she would balance her work and home responsibilities, yet no one asked him. He works. His wife works. He takes his kids to school. He goes to preschool concerts. He changes diapers. And he took parental leave with each child. “Here, you don’t have to choose between being a professional, being a mother, being a spouse,” his wife, Canadian-born writer Eliza Reid, said. “You can just be a person.”

At the end of his PowerPoint presentation, Professor Gislasin sighed. “People say that caring fatherhood is now a part of their image of masculinity,” he told me. He paused. “I envy them. I wish this had been available when I was a young father.”

The U.S. is not Iceland. But as one of the only countries in the world that does not guarantee paid leave to anyone, we can do better. We can strive for policies that don’t narrow choices but rather expand them, allowing people to be people. Paid family leave—not maternity leave, and with an extra nudge for men—is a good place to start.