A new report by the International Labor Organization finds the large majority of women workers, at least 830 million, does not have adequate maternity protection and continue to face discrimination in the labor market.
Despite progress in maternity protection, ILO officials say motherhood remains a handicap for far too many working women.
ILO Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch Chief Shauna Olney says almost 80 percent of the 830 million women who lack maternity protection are in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
"The report also shows that some groups of workers, often female-dominated, are excluded entirely from protection in law and practice," she said. "We look at self-employed women, migrant, domestic, agricultural, casual and temporary workers, as well as indigenous and tribal workers."
The ILO has passed three conventions since 1919 that aim to protect pregnant and nursing mothers against health hazards at work, provide paid maternity leave, and protect women against discrimination and dismissal in relation to maternity. It says 66 out of 185 countries and territories have adopted at least one of these conventions.
The report also sees a gradual shift towards maternity leave periods that meet or exceed the 14-week ILO standard.
It finds only three countries in the world — the United States, Papua New Guinea and Oman — do not provide mandatory payments during maternity leave, but provide the right to voluntary unpaid maternity leave.
The ILO says the vast majority of countries explicitly prohibit discrimination during pregnancy and leave.
Report author, ILO Maternity Protection and Work-family Specialist Laura Addati, told VOA that society loses when it does not provide maternity protection.
"In terms of the consequences for societies that many women, one out of five of those who do not have access to family leave declare that their leave choice is to drop out of the labor force," she said. "This is an enormous waste of talents in terms of productivity and the role and contribution that women can make to society."
Addati also says working parents should have access to affordable child care services so women can return to work productively once their maternity leave ends.
The report says many countries are also taking measures to support working fathers, calling leave provisions for fathers most common in developed economies, Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In most instances, employers bear the full cost of benefits related to maternity and paternity leave.
The ILO recommends nations move away from employer liability and pay for maternity and paternity benefits through social insurance or public funds and social care services. It says taking this monetary weight off employers would promote non-discrimination at work.