On August 26, the US observed Women’s Equality Day, commemorating the adoption of the 19th Amendment and its granting of women’s suffrage. However, as we celebrate the strides we’ve made, gender inequity remains a prevalent and complex issue in America and other Western democracies. In particular, the impact (or lack thereof) of federal parental-leave policy illustrates how well-intentioned legislation can fall short in bridging gender gaps.
In recent decades, many Western countries have promoted significant reforms in parental policies, largely characterized by a shift from traditional mother-oriented protections to gender-neutral supports. As part of this trend, the US Congress enacted the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993. FMLA provides working parents, irrespective of gender, up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to care for a newborn baby or a sick child. Its motivation were gender-equity concerns, on the assumption that parental policies which afford men the same parental benefits as those traditionally reserved for women could effectively encourage them to assume more care-taking responsibilities and relieve the burdens and costs of motherhood.
Yet the most recent comprehensive report on FMLA revealed that 70% of men who take parental leave do so for a negligible period of zero to 10 days, while 38% of female employees (as opposed to 6% of male employees) take leave of more than 60 days for parental reasons, and 18% of women (compared to 9% of men) take leave of 41 to 60 days. Hence, the federally guaranteed right to gender-neutral parental leave has not changed traditional leave-taking patterns.
These patterns shed light more broadly on gender differences in the family and societal attitudes on care-taking. A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that American mothers spend about twice as much time with their children as fathers do (13.5 hours per week for mothers and 7.3 hours for fathers), while mothers spend an average of 18 hours weekly on housework compared to 10 for men. Department of Labor data shows that 69.9% of mothers with children participate in the workforce, compared to 92.8 percent of fathers. Moreover, mothers remain much more likely than men to work part-time and to make additional professional concessions in an effort to adapt their paid work to their parental responsibilities. Consequently, a mother with children younger than 18 earns less than 75 cents for every dollar made by fathers.
In Israel, despite its far more generous system of parental supports, a very similar picture emerges with regard to the persistence of maternal patterns of care and their problematic impact on mothers’ labor force participation and earnings. As early as the 1950s, Israeli women were provided financial and legal means to pursue the double task of motherhood and paid employment. A strong legal infrastructure that included exclusive rights for working mothers – such as the right to a 12-week paid maternity leave or to take time off to care for a sick child – was created.
In the late 1980s, inspired by gender-equality reforms in Scandinavian countries, advocates for gender equality in Israel started to push for a process of replacing maternal rights with parental rights. Maternal rights such as the right to paid sick leave to care for a sick child, or to unpaid leave after the termination of the three-month maternity leave, were all converted into parental rights. The formula was that rights not exploited by the mother would devolve to the father. In 1997, Israel’s maternity leave policy was amended to allow the couple to decide who would take the second half of paid leave. Two years later, this move was supplemented by the extension of parental leave from 12 weeks to 14. Today, paid parental leave in Israel stands at 15 weeks and allows fathers to take one week of the leave together with the mother.
However, despite Israel’s more progressive efforts to encourage men to spend more time on parenting, legal reforms in this area have surprisingly made no impact in undermining traditional gendered patterns of care-work and paid work. In 1999 – the first full year in which men and women could share parental leave in Israel – only 218 men did so, compared to 65,963 women. Strikingly similar figures held true for 2016: 520 men took parental leave in contrast to 126,266 women.
In sum, irrespective of the scope and substance of parental policies, mothers in both countries do much more domestic work than fathers and consequently pay a significant penalty in the labor market in terms of pay and status. Even in the Scandinavian countries that put extra pressure on men to participate equally in the division of domestic labor by mandating a limited period of paternity leave, the same dilemma prevails.
What can we learn from comparative analyses of parental leave policies in the US and other Western countries? In their efforts to recruit men to be caretakers at home, legislators and policy-makers focused on influencing men’s parental choices and behavior. This male-centered focus left untouched the question of how and why women contribute to this gendered reality and what additional (women-oriented) measures are necessary in order to advance change.
In addition to motivating men to step in, it is important to explore the structures and forces that shape women’s decision to remain the primary caretakers at home.
Further, specifically naming this problem “the maternal dilemma” would serve as a reminder of where the core of the problem is. It would also indicate that shifting the focus back to working mothers and addressing their needs and concerns at home as well as in the workplace are crucial for moving forward.
The writer is a professor of law at the University of Haifa. Her scholarship examines the intersections of gender, law, and feminism in legal theory and practice. This column was adapted from ‘The Maternal Dilemma,’ a recent Cornell Law Review article she authored.