Why you should care
It’s not just about having more time at home.
There might be 12 weeks of maternity leave available to all new mothers, but not every woman takes it. In fact, many cut their leave short over fears that taking time off will hurt their careers. Thea Mills returned to work as a graphic designer six weeks after her daughter was born. “I probably could have delayed going back, but … I didn’t want to risk someone taking my place,” she says. Plus, her maternity leave was unpaid, so she was ready to start earning a paycheck again. Tina Bagapor-O’Harrow took just five days off after her daughter was born. As the president of a small advertising business in Washington, D.C., she says, “If I’m not here, no one is making the phone ring.”
For the past 22 years, the number of women taking maternity leave has remained constant, with no fluctuations.
According to a recent Ohio State University study, between 1994 and 2015, 273,000 of U.S. women took maternity leave on average each month. This number has remained surprisingly stagnant considering that since 2004, three states have enacted paid family leave laws. California began offering up to six weeks of parental leave in 2004, New Jersey began providing up to six weeks in 2009, and Rhode Island has offered up to four weeks since 2014. Yet these state laws have had no national impact on maternity leave, says Jay L. Zagorsky, a research scientist at Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research and author of the study.
Compensation might be a factor. Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey, Zagorsky found that only about half of employees taking parental leave in 2015 received paid time off. The U.S. economy may have expanded dramatically since 1994, but most employees who take family leave still aren’t paid, or receive only half their salary — that hit to the wallet might explain why more women aren’t opting to take leave. “Sometimes getting ‘better than nothing’ doesn’t cause people to jump at these policies,” Zagorsky says.
There are companies making an effort to better support new parents. At Starbucks, benefits-eligible birth mothers who work in retail stores receive six weeks of fully paid leave, and Facebook offers four months of fully paid leave. At Hilton, fathers and adoptive parents receive two weeks of fully paid leave, and mothers who give birth receive an additional eight weeks. Meanwhile, a program in the state of New York that goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, will offer up to eight weeks of paid leave, ramping up to 12 weeks in 2021. And then there’s President Trump’s 2018 budget, which includes the creation of a federal program that would provide families six weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child.
Which all sounds promising, but will these programs have any impact on new mothers who believe that taking leave could negatively affect their careers? A recent iCIMS Women in the Workforce report found that 45 percent of office professionals believe taking parental leave would decrease their opportunities for promotion. These concerns increase as employees move up the career ladder, and they’re also more pervasive for women in STEM professions.
Regardless of what policies are enacted, it will take a long time to change office workers’ attitudes about family leave, predicts Susan Vitale, chief marketing officer of iCIMS, which provides talent acquisition software. It helps that multiple companies in a variety of industries are starting to offer paid maternity leave. Otherwise, if it were just one company offering it, Vitale says, “it would be much easier for employers to say, ‘We offer it, but — wink, wink — you shouldn’t take it.’ ”