Written by Jan Jaben-Eilon Tuesday, November 29 2011If you work and are pregnant, you might not want to live in Papua, New Guinea, Swaziland, or, stunningly, the United States. These are the only three countries in the world that clearly offer no legal guarantee of paid maternity leave, according to a Human Rights Watch report that studied 190 countries and their parental leave policies.
Of those 190 countries, 178 guaranteed paid leave for new mothers and nine were unclear about their maternity policies. “Around the world, policymakers understand that helping workers meet their work and family obligations is good public policy,” said Janet Walsh, deputy women’s rights director of Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “It’s time for the U.S. to get on board with this trend,” Walsh said. “The U.S. is actually missing out by failing to ensure that all workers have access to paid family leave. Countries that have these programs show productivity gains, reduced turnover costs, and health care savings. We can’t afford not to guarantee paid family leave under the law – especially in these tough economic times.”
The 90-page report documents the health and financial impact on American workers of having little or no paid family leave after childbirth or adoption, employer reticence to offer breast-feeding support or flexible schedules, and workplace discrimination against new parents, especially mothers. Parents interviewed for the study said that having scarce or no paid leave contributed to delaying babies' immunizations, postpartum depression, and other health problems and caused mothers to give up breast-feeding early. Many who took unpaid leave went into debt, and some were forced to seek public assistance. Some women said employer bias against working mothers derailed their careers.
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act enables U.S. workers with new children or family members with serious medical conditions to take unpaid job-protected leave, but the 1993 Act covers only about half the work force. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11 percent of civilian workers (and 3 percent of the lowest-income workers) have paid family leave benefits. Roughly two-thirds of civilian workers have some paid sick leave, but only about a fifth of low-income workers do. Several studies have found that the number of employers voluntarily offering paid family leave is declining.
The United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t mandate that parents of newborns get paid leave. If you are willing to emigrate, consider Sweden or Norway. They have the best parental leave policies in the world, allowing more than a year paid for the mother and father combined.
If, however, you have no intention to move outside the United States just to keep your job and have your baby, you might want to consider moving to California or New Jersey. These are the only two states that have public paid leave insurance programs and both are financed exclusively through small employee payroll tax contributions. According to a study of the California program conducted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the City University of New York, employers overwhelmingly reported that the program has had a positive or neutral effect on productivity, profitability, turnover, and employee morale. Similarly, studies from other countries show that offering paid leave is good for business.
It would seem to be a no-brainer. Once your children are born, there may be another reason for you to move abroad. Again, you should consider Sweden, the country considered to have the greatest gender equality, topping a number of international gender rankings, including the Gender, Institutions and Development Index; the Gender Empowerment Measure; and the Gender Gap Index. The Swedish social welfare system makes it easier to have both a family and professional life; parental allowance is paid for a total of 480 days when a child is born or adopted. Thus, you will see women well represented in the government, where nearly half the ministers are women, and in the Swedish parliament where 45 percent of the members are female. In addition, the percentage of women in paid employment is nearly 80 percent, and Sweden is known for the highest birth rate in Europe.
But that’s not all. Women’s economic participation in leadership roles is high in Sweden. In 2005, twenty-five percent of Swedish private limited companies and 31 percent of publicly traded companies were headed by women. The share of women in senior management was 12.3 percent.
Females attain these high positions after scoring ahead of males in school. Girls, on average, have higher grades than boys, sometimes even in traditionally male-dominated areas such as mathematics and science. Sixty percent of all undergraduate students are women, who receive two-thirds of all degrees awarded. Women account for about 44 percent of doctoral degrees.
So, one may wonder about the educational system in Sweden, and that’s where it gets more interesting, and somewhat controversial. A taxpayer-funded preschool that opened last year in Stockholm, for children ages 1 to 6, represents one of the most radical examples of Sweden’s efforts to engineer equality between the sexes from childhood on up. At the "Egalia" preschool (the title connotes "equality"), staff avoid using words like "him" or "her" and address the 33 kids as "friends" rather than girls and boys.
Staff members even try to avoid masculine and feminine references from their speech, including the pronouns him or her, or “han” or “hon” in Swedish. Instead, they use the genderless “hen,” which is not even a word in Swedish.
Breaking down gender roles is a core mission in the national curriculum for preschools, underlined by the theory that even in highly egalitarian-minded Sweden, society gives boys an unfair edge. To even things out, many preschools have hired "gender pedagogues" to help staff identify language and behavior that risk reinforcing stereotypes.
But if you think that Swedes are too extreme, you should consider what one Toronto couple recently did. They decided to try and raise a genderless baby by not telling anyone, friends or family, whether their child is a boy or girl. The child is named Storm, and that’s probably what was created by the parents’ decision.
Jan Jaben-Eilon was a founding staff writer of the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Since then, she has been the international editor of Advertising Age magazine and has written for such publications as The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Washington Journalism Review, and Consumer Reports. She is the author of soon-to-be-published (There is) Life After Cancer. Jan and her husband have homes in Atlanta and Jerusalem.