Without broader cultural changes paid family leave is only a Band-Aid—or worse yet, a stigma.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Be Bold for Change”—a premise that is as much a call to action as it is a reminder that change still needs to happen, that women’s equality is still not a reality in our world. As I write this, a bill is making its way through the legislature in my state that aims to address at least one of the challenges women face in establishing equality with their male peers: if passed, the bill would establish a public insurance scheme to fund paid family leave. Indeed, Washington State is not alone in this effort. Over 20 other states, and an even greater number of municipalities, are actively considering or have recently passed some form of paid family leave legislation. California was the first state to pass such legislation in 2002, and its insurance scheme to help fund paid family leave for both women and men has been in place since 2004.
Numerous scholars and others have pointed out just how inadequate the Family and Medical Leave Act is for meeting the needs of working parents.
State, municipal, and employer-level family leave policies have bubbled forth in the vacuum left by an absence of a robust federal family leave policy. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is currently the only federal policy governing the rights of men and women who need to take time off work to care for new children or sick family members. Introduced in 1993, the FMLA allows workers who have been employed for more than one year to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off for the purposes of supplying this family care. However, numerous scholars and others have pointed out just how inadequate this policy is for meeting the needs of working parents. Because the leave is unpaid, most of the leave-eligible workers who do not take it report not being able to do so because they are unable to afford unpaid time off work. Additionally, even if they could afford to take unpaid time off, more than 40 percent of American workers are not even covered by the policy, since it only applies to employers with 50 or more workers.
Recognizing that recruitment and retention of its female workforce may benefit from the ability for its employees to be able to actually take family leave, many employers—from the corporate world to academia—have adopted their own paid leave programs, including, perhaps most notably the U.S. military, which in recent months has expanded its paid leave for women service members to 12 paid weeks in all branches. However, as activists for publicly-mandated paid family leave point out, what incentivizes these employers in these particular professions to adopt paid family leave policies does not uniformly impact employers across the country—on the contrary, low-wage workers are particularly unlikely to receive benefits from their employer. Even when low-wage workers are entitled to FMLA leave, they are the least likely to have additional employer benefits or personal savings that make taking the leave possible. A statewide or national paid family leave program, it is argued, would be the most equitable solution to helping all workers take time to care for children and families when needed.
I support the movement for paid family leave. I think that many low-wage workers, and those workers currently uncovered by other family leave policies would benefit tremendously from having a real “choice” to take time off of work to care for a newborn or a sick child if they no longer have to choose between caring for their family and paying their bills. I am skeptical, though, that paid family leave can bring about real “change” for the equality of women in this country, and here’s why.
In most workplaces, women are still not considered “ideal” workers. The ideal worker, as Joan Williams shows in Unbending Gender, is someone who works full time, does not take sick leave, and is willing to put in overtime at the drop of a hat. The biological ability of many women to bear children, and the social imperative of many women to care for children or other family needs, means that women must work much harder than men to be considered “ideal” in their workplace setting. For instance, in my book, The Balance Gap, I tell the story of Constance, a faculty member just starting her first job at a public university. Constance reveals that she underwent hormone treatments in order to conceive within a specific window of time that would allow her to have a baby during the summer months, rather than during the academic year. “I was worried about how it would look at my job,” she says. “I felt like they’d been willing to take a chance on me, and so I didn’t want to show up and not be a full employee.” Constance wanted to have a baby. But she also wanted to show up at her new job baby-free, because it was so clear to her that having a baby while working at her new job would make her seem non-ideal—like a “bad” employee.
Family leave policies such as the FMLA began out of the recognition that many women have biological children—a physical difference from men that must be accommodated in the workplace if women are to participate in work outside the home after having children. From their origin, therefore, family-friendly policies, have acknowledged differences in some women’s physical needs from those of men when it comes to having children, and indeed biological childbearing does cause a period of physical disability for many women that often requires some period of recovery. What is problematic about introducing policies that address this biological difference is that policies aimed specifically at women, such as maternity leave or breastfeeding accommodations, also serve to reinforce the culturally held expectation that women should provide society’s caregiving needs. Maternity leave, for example, undermines the possibility that fathers might take time to bond with a child when it first arrives into the home.
I am skeptical that paid family leave can bring about real “change” for the equality of women in this country.
For this reason, many types of family-friendly policies have moved away from gender-specific requirements for leave. The FMLA, for instance, is “gender-neutral” on the surface—allowing men or women to take the 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a variety of possible caregiving needs. Many employees even offer paid paternity leave, though often for much more limited time periods than the paid leave offered for women. In the U.S. military, for instance, fathers are afforded two weeks of paid leave while mothers are given 12 weeks of paid leave. However, what is clear from studies of paid leave, both in the U.S. and in other countries, is that even when leave and other family-friendly policies are “gender-neutral” the statistics about who actually takes advantage of these policies reveals a continued connection between family-friendly policies and gendered expectations of caregiving. One study of California’s paid family leave, for instance, found that in 2009-2010 men still only accounted for 32% of all care claims and 26% of bonding claims under the law. Moreover, men took shorter leaves on average (four weeks) than women (ten weeks).
We need to challenge the ideal worker construct head-on.
What this makes clear is that family-friendly policies are only a Band-Aid for what really afflicts American women in the workplace—a culture that expects them to be both ideal caregivers and ideal workers. Moreover, not only do work/life balance policies such as paid family leave not address this expectation head-on, they can actually serve to reinforce these cultural expectations. If women are the only ones taking paid family leave in a workplace—whether men are entitled to the leave or not—then it becomes almost impossible for them to claim the status of “ideal worker” within their workplace setting. Instead of simply providing paid time off to care for a new baby, then, paid family leave also carries with it a possible stigma—one that can create a stereotype within a workplace setting of women who claim their rights to family-friendly policies as not being fully committed to their job.
It may seem obvious to many why paid family leave is the kind of “change” that the International Women’s Day theme is calling for but for real change to happen, I argue that we need to challenge the ideal worker construct head-on. We need to fundamentally resist the way that we currently think about and place value on certain kinds of work and not on others and paid family leave alone does not do that. Paid family leave does not challenge the norms of work and family as separate spheres. Instead, paid family leave only serves to further entrench the status of an ideal worker into our collective consciousness. So by all means, yes, let us work to improve the economic realities of working women now. But let us not kid ourselves that this represents true change to the cultural norms that continue to reproduce inequality for women in the workplace.