career politics

The Maternity Leave Arms Race

Photo: Martin Klimek/Corbis

This week in “I don’t know how she does it!”: Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, who gave birth to a baby boy yesterday, announced she will take just a few weeks of leave and “work throughout it.” In July, when Mayer accepted the position atop Yahoo!, she was six months pregnant. “They showed their evolved thinking,” she told Fortune.

Perhaps we need to rethink the definition of “evolved.” One of the more compelling segments of Hanna Rosin’s much-discussed new book, The End of Men, is about how successful women have succeeded by one-upping dudes in their dudeliness — by doing things like insisting they don’t need maternity leave. Whereas feminists once predicted that the rise of women would come with an attendant set of policies designed to make the world fairer, more humane, and more just, successful women have largely achieved by fitting the mold, not breaking it.

Mayer, superwoman of the moment, is just the latest example. Benazir Bhutto gave birth while in office as Pakistan’s prime minister. A Japanese politician had a child last year. In the United States, four members of Congress have delivered babies since 2007. One of those politicians, Republican Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, has given birth twice — which is super-interesting, as she voted against providing paid parental leave to all federal employees. McMorris Rodgers didn’t officially take maternity leave either time, but there are huge spikes in the number of votes she missed in the periods of “excused absence” immediately after the birth of each of her kids.

When I hunted for stories of male CEOs and members of Congress who became new parents in the past few years, I couldn’t come up with any. At least not any that dominated headlines the way Mayer has. Becoming a new father is a milestone that doesn’t even merit a mention — in the news or in the workplace, apparently. A study (PDF) last year by the Boston College Center for Work & Family found that “Only 1 in 20 fathers took more than two weeks off after their most recent child was born, and 1 in 100 took more than 4 weeks off.” And even new dads with employers who offer paid paternity leave were not likely to take advantage of it.

It’s not just high-level careerists of both genders who are forced to forgo parental leave. Lower-income women (and men) are expected to be back to work mere weeks after having a kid. Domestic workers, the low-paid women who enable the Marissa Mayers of the world to jump right back into the rat race, still aren’t guaranteed the right to meal breaks and overtime pay, let alone a period of leave after childbirth. (Just yesterday, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the domestic workers bill of rights.) Yeah, it’s hard to be CEO of a tech company, but isn’t it just as hard to care for someone else’s kids or scrub someone else’s shower less than a month after giving birth?

Across professional and class lines, if women want maternity leave, nearly half must take it unpaid. The United States is now the only industrialized country that doesn’t require employers to offer paid time off to new parents. As post-recession working Americans do more and more work for the same amount of pay (or less), there are more and more professional repercussions for taking any leave at all. The dominant approach to parental leave in America is “take what you need now, probably without pay, and face the consequences later.” This system only works for rich women and the biologically lucky (cough, men, cough). And even then it doesn’t work particularly well. Last year Kelley Voelker, a former VP at Deutsche Bank, filed a lawsuit alleging she was passed over for promotions because she took maternity leave. “I worked extremely hard and, as a working mom, I sacrificed so much,” she told ABC News. “I just wanted to be treated equally and no different than my male colleagues.” After she filed the suit, they fired her.

Of course, Marissa Mayer should do what’s good for Marissa Mayer. But it’s fair to say that most women — and their partners — require more than a few work-from-home weeks after the birth of a baby. This fact tends to get buried as we focus on the handful of superwomen who have had kids while retaining their headline-grabbing jobs.

So here’s a radical idea: The only way for both women and men to get ahead is to make parental leave not just paid, but mandatory. That’s the only way to fully destigmatize it. Sounds crazy, I know, but hear me out. In countries where workers must take a certain number of days off per year, vacation time is expected. Normalized. There are no social penalties for taking advantage of the policy, and it applies to all workers — not just those lucky enough to have forward-thinking employers who have read the studies about how vacation time improves worker productivity. Mandatory parental leave wouldn’t just make life easier on moms and dads, it would improve health outcomes for babies. Research shows that “ten-week paid maternity leave was associated with a reduction in infant mortality rates of 1–2 percent; a twenty-week leave, with a 2–4 percent reduction; and a thirty-week leave, with a 7–9 percent reduction.”

Expanding access to paid parental leave would help, sure. But given the professional pressures at the top and the economic pressures at the bottom, it’s not going to drastically improve the situation for parents. We need a reset button. Have a kid? You’re automatically off the job and collecting a standard amount of parental leave, whether you’re a father or a mother, a biological parent or an adopter. I know it sounds like a pipe dream. But, as Mayer put it, successful people like to “stay in the rhythm of things.” The best way to ensure all working parents can do that is to change the rhythm.

The Maternity Leave Arms Race