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Long Maternity Leaves Can Be Career Killers. Here’s How to Fix That.

Topics: Data & Research
maternity leaves
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The gender pay gap is worse for mothers than it is for childless women.

In the United States, where companies are not required to offer paid maternity leave, the motherhood penalty makes sense: left to juggle the responsibilities of childcare and work, women are often forced into lower-paying, part-time jobs … or out of the workforce entirely.

But not even ample paid maternity leave will entirely close the gap. How do we know? Because it hasn’t in Scandinavia, home of some of the most liberal parental leave policies in the world.

At Slate, Jordan Weissmann explains:

…for all Denmark does to support working parents, it turns out that there, much like here, motherhood is still a pretty devastating career choice. In a new study, a trio of economists used a large cache of government administrative data to look at what happened to the earnings of 470,000 Danish women who gave birth for the first time between 1985 and 2003. The results were dramatic. Before they became parents, the researchers found, men’s and women’s pay grew at a similar pace. After kids, their career paths split. Fathers mostly continued on as if nothing had changed. Mothers, however, saw their earnings quickly collapse by 30 percent on average, compared to what they would have hypothetically earned without children. They became less likely to work at all, but earned lower wages and clocked fewer hours if they did. Worse, their careers never fully recovered. After 10 years, women’s pay was still one-fifth lower than before they had kids.

In Denmark, parents can split 52 weeks of paid leave. Other Scandinavian countries offer similar policies. Sweden adds a wrinkle: parents are entitled to 480 days of paid leave, but 90 days are reserved for each parent — use it or lose it.

The “Choice” to Stay Home

Some pundits argue that studies like these show that women want to stay home with their children and that men don’t. They can point to Denmark, where some labor leaders have pushed for a more equal split of parental leave, along the lines of what Sweden offers — and met with resistance from mothers who don’t want to lose their time with their children.

However, that argument overlooks a crucial fact:

The gender pay gap is smaller in Scandinavia than it is in the U.S.

In 2015, the gap in Sweden was 13.2 percent, meaning that women earned around 87 cents for every dollar earned by men. In the U.S., the gap currently stands at 76 cents on the dollar.

So, while it’s true that men and women aren’t sharing domestic duties evenly — even in Sweden or Denmark — it’s also true that policies like these help make things more equitable, if not fully equal.

And, we still have no example of a situation in which men and women take equal leave and equal responsibility for childcare duties afterward. Weissmann quotes the authors of the study, who write that “so long as family responsibilities are unequally shared, the gender gap is not likely to close and not even to narrow significantly.”

More paid paternity leave might well close the gap. At the very least, it would allow working women and their families to make real choices about how to divide domestic and professional labor.

For more information on the gender pay gap, read PayScale’s report.

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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