Bridging the Gender Gap: The Problems with Parental Leave

Lauren Hall,

Release Date
August 19, 2014


Poverty & Inequality

While it sounds good on paper, mandated maternity leave doesn’t always achieve what it’s created for. Even mandating paternity leave has its own complications. The truth is that, while women are temporarily away, their career goals and advancement opportunities can be permanently stunted. Policy mandates, in practice, can be inefficient; in the worst cases, they can impede the cultural changes they seek to encourage. Professor Lauren Hall discusses the disparities.

Do male professors work even less on leave?
Are women in the U.S. more likely to be CEOs in than other countries with more generous leave policies?
Find out what constitutes “long” and “short” term maternity leaves.

Men greatly outnumber women in US corporate leadership, in political leadership, in academic positions, and in careers in science and technology. To address this ongoing disparity, many have called for new rules and policies to level the playing field, such as state mandated maternity and paternity leaves. Some European countries already require as much as a year of paid leave to help women balance home and careers.
So does mandating parental leave help solve the problem?
Hi, I’m doctor Lauren Hall, professor of political science at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The problem with attempting to impose gender equality with laws and mandates is that such policies often have unintended consequences that actually do the opposite of what reformers were trying to accomplish.
Take maternity leave, it’s a good idea with health benefits for mothers and babies. But it’s not true that mandating leave saves women from making career sacrifices. Long maternity leaves mean women end up with less experience, weaker portfolios, and a smaller network. In an unexpected twist, in countries with generous leave policies there are actually a lower proportion of female managers and CEOs than in the United States.
Mandating generous maternity leave may actually prevent women from reaching the same heights as men in their careers. Is the answer then to require paternity as well so both genders take time off for child rearing?
Well paternity leave is also a great idea, forcing new fathers to take time off doesn’t make them spend their time parenting. Early data suggests that in fields like academia, men tend to use their leave as a way to accomplish personal and professional development goals – such as new research, or publishing a paper – while women use it to recover from birth and take care of their infant. In such instances, mandatory paternity leave actually provides men with even more of an advantage over women.
Mandates and well-intentioned laws are appealing because they seem to offer straightforward solutions, but in reality, they don’t. In the best cases, policy mandates are inefficient solutions and in the worst cases mandates can actually prevent the very cultural changes they were meant to encourage.
In order to ensure that women can reach their peak career potential, and to lessen disparities between the genders – cultures, attitudes and the choices men and women make must change. And that won’t happen just by passing a law.
Watch my next video to learn more about the challenges we face addressing the gender gap.