Someone’s On Her Soapbox

My super smart, stylish, and successful lawyer mom friend (that’s actually what her gigantic business cards say) sent me this Atlantic article by Gwynn Guilford last week, and I luuuurve it. In a nutshell, the article lays out the clear economic benefits of keeping women in the workplace, and proposes that providing equal pay and more paternity leave – yes, paternity leave – may be the key to doing that.

This makes so much sense to me. It’s way easier (and cheaper) to return to work and leave your child at home with your baby daddy than to find other child care arrangements. Also, it’s super fun to see how terrified he gets the first time he is alone with the baby.

But offering more paternity leave raises difficult cultural issues. There’s still a huge stigma around men taking paternity leave in the U.S. For example: remember that poor Mets player who took advantage of the MLB’s paternity leave and missed two totally inconsequential games at the beginning of the season? Yeah, that didn’t go over so well, although I’m guessing his wife and child appreciated it. And then there are the obvious financial problems with taking leave. Apparently only about 14% of employers in the US even offer paid paternity leave, so taking time off is a usually a financial hit. And when men are making a dollar for every 78 cents a woman is making (IT IS TRUE), it’s much harder financially on the whole family for men to take several weeks or months off of work.

Guilford’s article in the Atlantic talks about the problem of childcare leave in Japan, which, compared to America, has got it pretty freaking good. In Japan, couples get 12 MONTHS of PAID childcare leave, which the couple can divide as they choose.

I will pause and let you collect yourself.

Now that you are done looking at real estate in Tokyo, here’s where it gets complicated. The Japanese government pays 2/3 of the parent’s salary for the first six months, and then ½ for the remaining leave. While this all seems “very equitable,” in practice it doesn’t work out that way because of–you guessed it–cultural stigma and the wage gap. In Japan, women usually take the first few months of leave (because childbirth and breastfeeding are hard), and men are stuck with the last part, where their typically higher salary is cut in half. The more leave the man takes, the greater the financial hit to the whole family. The result? Men don’t take much leave, and women take a lot. Duh. For women, then, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Japanese businesses expect women will be out for a long time so they pay them less and don’t offer them promotions or management positions. And women aren’t getting paid fairly or offered promotions or management positions, so they stay home.

Sigh. It’s so complicated. BUT WAIT NOT REALLY. How about we just pay people equally and stop making assumptions about what moms and dads want based on outdated ideas about gender? As I may have mentioned, not every woman wants to walk away from a career as soon as she pops out a baby. Yes, I said pops out. And not every dad wants to ensconce himself in his office and leave the childrearing to the ladies. Yes, I said childrearing.

Exhibit A: the CEO of Pimco (a $2 trillion with-a-t global investment fund) said LATER to his job after his wise 10-year-old daughter presented him with a list of 22 important life events he had missed while working. The CEO said he felt guilty about his “out of whack” work-life balance, and who wouldn’t with his schedule? Every day he would wake up at 2:45am, which is the MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, work like a maniac, and then go to bed at 8:45pm.

I mean. NO ONE, man or woman, should be expected to keep up that kind of routine for very long, unless you are in college and “work” is “eating cereal and watching daytime talk shows in pajama pants.” But it’s refreshing to see men talking publicly about the unreasonable pressures on parents to maintain demanding jobs while trying to be an involved parent. Men want paternity leave, and they want to have balance, too, and that has benefits for women, which has benefits for the economy as a whole. This is clearly not only a women’s issue, and finding the solution will involve both women and men.

That said, equal pay for women and mandated paid maternity leave are no brainers and would be a solid start to making meaningful changes. For example, did you know the U.S., Lesotho, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea are the only countries that do not require some kind of paid maternity leave? And did you know that Lesotho is a country? Because, I’m not going to lie, I did not. But now I’m mad at it.

Which is why I was psyched to see Labor Secretary Thomas Perez say recently that it’s all kinds of ridiculousness that the U.S. still does not provide paid leave for new moms. And he frames it as, “We are not serving our women and our families well.” Yes – women and families. When we start to talk about this problem as a family one, and one that we all need to fight for, then maybe things will change.

Or we can just all move to Sweden and get 480 days of paid leave per child. PER CHILD! Hallå!