Longer Maternity Leave Not So Great for Women After All

Turns out women in those Nordic countries with luxurious maternity leaves get mommy-tracked when they go back to work

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The U.S. may have the biggest economy in the world, but in one area it is a loser: it’s one of the only countries that do not guarantee paid leave for new mothers. For many people, that’s a powerful symbol of the nation’s failure to support women, especially when compared with Nordic countries where new mothers get up to a year or two to look after their babies.

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But almost all public policies have unintended consequences, and maternity leave is no exception. Rather than offering a route to equality between the sexes, the data shows, extended maternity leave actually throws up roadblocks in a woman’s career — the very roadblocks that such policies are meant to prevent.

Obviously, career trajectory is not the only reason to establish paid maternity leave. It also improves children’s health and well-being. It makes women happier. Every international organization that ranks women’s well-being puts generous maternity leave at the top of its wish list of policies.

We’ve all heard about the seemingly Arcadian maternal leaves in the Nordic countries. In Norway, new mothers can get 47 weeks off. Finland gives less, only 42 paid weeks, but the country has still been ranked No. 1 in Save the Children’s “State of the World’s Mothers” rankings. Sweden gives 480 days at about 80% of a woman’s former salary; the time can be used at any point until a child’s eighth birthday. Denmark may take the prize: it offers mothers a full year at full pay.

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Economists generally agree that these laws have helped bring more mothers back to the office, as they were designed to do. Close to 85% of women ages 25 to 54 were in the labor force in that part of northern Europe as of 2010; Sweden’s 87.5% may be the highest percentage of women in the workforce in the world, compared with 93.6% of Swedish men. In the U.S., by contrast, 75.2% of women are working, compared with 89.3% of men.

But it turns out that extended maternity leave in European countries leads to other problems. Women who take a year off from work with a new baby — not to mention mothers of a second child who take a total of two years — experience what economists call human-capital depreciation, meaning their skills get rusty. Their work-social networks also fray. Unsurprisingly, their income and careers take a hit. “Women who make full use of their maternity or parental leave entitlements receive, on average, lower wages in the years following their resumption of work than those who return before leave expires,” the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development concludes in a review of studies on the subject. The effect can continue for years after leave takers return to their jobs and “can permanently damage [mothers’] ability to achieve their labor market potential.”

In fact, generous maternity-leave policies have a tendency to harden a country’s glass ceiling, and women in the Nordic countries are actually less likely to reach career heights than women in the U.S. (The one exception is in the political realm, where quotas have filled Nordic legislatures and ministries with close to equal numbers of women as men.) The U.S. has a higher proportion of female managers at all levels, as well as professionals and university professors, than northern (and the less egalitarian southern) European countries. Though the overall gender wage gap is somewhat higher in the U.S. than in the Nordic countries, that’s not the case among top earners. Female executives and professionals in America earn closer to their male peers than Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian and Danish women. It seems that long maternity leave puts women on a mommy track from which they have a hard time exiting.

(MORE: The Female Labor Market Is Actually Stagnating)

If you’re thinking that one answer to this dilemma is that new fathers should take more of the career hit so new mothers can take less, you’re not alone. Over the past decades, Norway, Sweden and Iceland have been tinkering with policy formulas to get dads to take longer paternity leave. They’ve found that when, and only when, they introduce “use it or lose it” daddy months — that is, when fathers get several months of leave that cannot be transferred to mothers — men will take substantial time off with the baby. However, any leave time left to a couple to divide is almost always taken by women. In Sweden, where the most reliable data is available, women take 76% of parental-leave days. We don’t know yet the effect of an upcoming Icelandic law that would reserve three months for mothers, three for fathers and three to be decided by the couple, though if history is any guide, women will almost always take the extra months.

This doesn’t mean long maternity leave is a bad idea. But it does mean it’s not just women who can’t have it all — it’s policymakers too.

8 comments
SharronWilliam2
SharronWilliam2

So what if a woman decides to stay home and forget about her career! What's more important children, or a career? Stay at home mothers have a great career! A career that shows how much they love their children and want to be with them 24/7. What a great career!

PrettyEnRouge
PrettyEnRouge

This article indicates that coming back from a long maternity leave has its obstacles, but I would much prefer to be able to make that choice than the 12 weeks we have in the USA.  Here, a woman's career may be completely derailed if she wants to take leave for one or two years to care for her child.  Heck, she barely sleeps at night during those first two years. If our country really cares about the family, as all our politicians claim to do, then they should make work place policies that are conducive to building families. 

schoenws
schoenws

I am at a real loss here at the author's somewhat sad attempt to show an upside to the lack of early childhood supportive policies and the lack of equal opportunity here in the US. What is your point? We should consider ourselves LUCKY to keep living the rat race imposed onto the average citizen of this exceptional country by those who run the show because... well, because the alternative would be to wonder aloud why we have so little say in improving quality of life in our own society, when other countries seem very well able to do just that.

MiscAdverts
MiscAdverts

Here in Denmark the trend in the past few years has in fact been more fathers taking/sharing maternity leave with the mother. Several reasons account for this including woman not wanting to be off the "fast track" for too long.  Also, not all maternity packages are created equal. In some instances one receives full salary (matched from various sources) for a limited time, then less money for a more extended leave. This is where the father might step in with his more generous benefits package and take up the slack for the baby's first year.  There is more telecommuting and work from home than previously too. Which means opportunities for women to keep their hand in to a greater extent than is possible otherwise.  Regardless of who takes off work there will always be the situation of the workplace moving along and the worker being left out of advancements based upon performance, to a certain extent. This is simply the cost of deciding to raise one's child at home with the parents in its early life.  I don't view that as a sacrifice at all -- and neither do most Danes.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

1.)  If a couple has a choice between who gets the time off, it's rational for women to take it rather than men, for the simple reason that initially the woman is still recovering from birth and that later she may well be breast-feeding.  There's nothing wrong, irrational, or unfair about that.
2.)  Just look at your kids' babysitters: women, by nature, are more likely to enjoy spending time with kids, especially in the infant/toddler stage.  That's not saying that guys don't like being good fathers, but that their wife is likely to feel even more strongly about being a "good" mother.  Thus, all things equal, most women are more likely to want to stay home with the kids than most men will.  And if only one can afford to do so, there's nothing wrong with that.
3.)  Have you considered that it's not JUST the months lost during maternity leave which impact whether women (or men, for that matter) rise to the heights of their profession?  A highly-successful professional is likely to spend way more than 40 hours at work each week; likely to check work email at home; likely to work odd hours when needed.  And all of that cuts into the time that professional can spend with her/his family.  Maybe, given the choice between a medium-level position and lots of family time, and a high-level position and little family time, men and women tend to choose differently.  And in a society where parental rights are more encouraged, maybe the choice of more family, less work is simply picked more often by women (and probably some men, too).  Again, I see nothing intrinsically wrong with that.

Above all, I think it's important to note that so long as maternity/paternity leave is a CHOICE, then it's not the government's business to decide whether women (or men) are "right" to take all of it or none of it.  Why not just accept that mothers (and fathers) are capable of making their own decisions, even if they're different from those you might have expected them to make?

GeneNovak
GeneNovak

@SharronWilliam2 well one problem I can think of is that companies aren't going to want to hire or promote women if you can flake out on them once you get pregnant.  Companies are not a charity.

GeneNovak
GeneNovak

@PrettyEnRouge they don't care about families which is why welfare exists.  It's geared towards destroying the family.  

shilpaashar
shilpaashar

@MiscAdverts I agree with you wholeheartedly. Being with your child is never ever a sacrifice - its so precious that no promotion in one's career would ever outweigh the time spent at home.