It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a U.N. conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. While the report highlights advances in some areas, it also points to places around the world where full equality has not been achieved -- including the United States, where it says there is still a lack of adequate maternal leave policies.
A private school teacher who wants to be identified only as Barbara, because she is worried about repercussions for speaking out, is expecting her second child and is worried about making ends meet.
“Most private schools do not have a maternity leave program because they are too small and it’s too expensive,” said Barbara.
Barbara can use 20 days of her paid sick and vacation leave but if she has to take time off after that, she would not be paid. She says the solution is disability insurance, but that would only pay a percentage of her income when she’s not working.
“I was insulted that, ‘oh having a child, bringing into society another productive member who will be paying taxes their whole life and working for the betterment of the society hopefully,’ that there was no thought behind the label of: 'oh well you’re disabled because you’re having a child.' That seems to be sort of crass to me,” she said.
Similar experiences are not uncommon in the United States said Jody Heymann, founder of the University of California Los Angeles’s World Policy Analysis Center.
“While 188 countries, that’s virtually every country, has paid maternity leave, the United States, now with Papua New Guinea, Suriname, six small South Pacific island states are the only countries without it,” said Heymann.
U.S. law requires employers to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Companies with fewer than 50 employees are exempt because for some businesses, paying for maternity leave is a financial hardship said Chris Tilly, who heads the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.
“Saying we should be able to have families and raise families and we should be able to retire, those are social needs, not necessarily business needs. So from a business view point it doesn’t necessarily make sense to fund these things, business has resisted,” said Tilly.
A few states, do have their own paid family leave programs. California, the first statewide program in the U.S., pays 55% of a person’s wages for up to six weeks of time off through the state’s disability insurance program.
Heymann said federal legislation to mandate paid maternity leave is necessary because a woman’s parenting role is connected to an income gap.
“While single women who have never married have earnings that look a lot like men in the United States, moms earn seventy-six cents on the dad’s dollar. So that’s where the real gap is,” said Heymann.
But before paid maternity leave becomes federal law in the U.S. a cultural shift may be necessary, added professor Tilly.
“And part of the cultural shift is that our allergy to big government regulations stands in the way of trying to decide as a society how do we make families work,” said Tilly.
“I have friends who live in Europe. I have friends who live in Asia and even in Canada and when they hear about our system they are always horrified and shocked,” said Barbara.
For now, Barbara has no choice but to hope her disability insurance and her husband’s income will be enough to pay the bills while she takes time off to recover from childbirth and care for her newborn.