Work-Family Policy and Its Impact on Mothers in the United States

Allison Grossman, LMHC
Allison Grossman is a licensed mental health therapist and college professor in New York. She is also currently pursuing a doctorate in human sexuality from the California Institute of Integral Studies, with interests in increasing economic mobility for women around the globe through policy change. Allison’s current research focuses on the intersection of women’s rights, reproductive justice, and environmental policy.

The United States remains behind its’ global economic peers in providing work-family policy that supports parents maintaining their professional status without sacrificing family responsibilities[i]. This has been particularly damaging to American women, who continue to take on the majority of domestic household duties[ii] and are more likely to sacrifice careers to compensate for family needs than men.[iii] In fact, the shortage of work-family policy in the U.S. maintains gender bias against women in the workplace and upholds gendered societal power hierarchies.

Policies like subsidized childcare, paid leave, paternity and maternity leave, and universal healthcare could offer parents balance between their careers and families and would be imperative to increasing women’s economic mobility and professional advancement. Not only do mothers make less money for every child they have,[iv] but bias against women because of their perceived role as mothers has created an implicit bias against all female professionals, known as the maternal wall bias.[v] Women frequently report being treated differently as a result of having children, or being presumed to take more time off, be less committed to their work, and even less competent simply because they might one day become a mother.[vi]

Work-family policies can significantly shift this bias. They can offset childcare costs, mandate, and thereby normalize parental leave and stabilize schedules for shift workers. These policies diminish the professional consequences of having children, and inversely allow dedicated employees or business owners the option to have children without sacrificing the career they have built.[vii] The goal of work-family policies is not to completely outsource the parental role to government-funded programs, but rather to provide parents the choice to balance career and children without the requirement of having to choose one. The opportunity to make such a choice can change the entire cultural discourse about gender and careers.

Motherhood Penalty

Having children enhances the gap in a woman’s earnings, with greater deficit for each child they have. In a study on 22 Western countries, Budig and colleagues[viii] found women lose approximately 15% in annual earnings per child. This wage discrepancy, or the “motherhood penalty” as it is called, is likely explained by a combination of challenges, including prioritizing childcare over obtaining greater work experiences, less upward job mobility due to absences required for childbirth, cutting back to part-time hours or flexible work arrangements, and overall gender discrimination.

It has often been argued that the exclusion of women from high-paying jobs and their over-representation in low-paid positions has maintained the wage disparity between genders[ix]. While this likely accounts for much of the gender pay gap, it does not explain why the gendered representations in such positions exist in the first place. Taking time away from work to have children, both out of need and desire, has created a society in which maternity leave is the norm but paternity leave is a luxury. For each additional week of paternity leave, the per-child motherhood penalty declines by about 1.7 percentage points. Yet only 9 percent of employees in the U.S. provide paternity leave and approximately 76% of fathers return to work within a week after their child is born or adopted.[x] Beyond lack of policy support, there is also greater workplace pushback for senior men who want to take time off for childrearing responsibilities, placing further pressure on women to be the primary caretaker.[xi]

With even the minimum maternity leave required to birth a baby and physically recover, women are absent from workplace happenings, face a potential loss of pay, and halt their job advancement. Combined with the high cost of childcare that often makes returning to work economically challenging, women frequently have more pauses and diversions on their career path than men.[xii] In more than half of the U.S., childcare for infants cost more than tuition at public universities.[xiii] Women are unsurprisingly then more likely to forgo their careers and stay home to compensate for unaffordable childcare when they are co-parenting with men.[xiv] Highly educated women find an additional challenge as they compete with likeminded male colleagues who do not need to take time off to bear children. In fact, women in male-dominated industries, like STEM, report having fewer children or putting off motherhood altogether to stay relevant in their professional arena.[xv]

While work-family policy would support both men and women, mothers continue to make less in wages than fathers and lose even more when they have to compensate for lack of childcare and paid family or medical leave.[xvi] An increase in state-funded work-family policies would defamilialize, and inherently de-feminize, childcare and allow for more mothers to obtain the same professional status that fathers and childless individuals have been able to achieve.[xvii] Implementing equal paternity and maternity leave, for example, could cease the feminization of parenting and allow both men and women to pause their careers when they become parents, diminishing this gendered professional absence that often keep women behind men in career advancement.

Policy and Power

This gender disparity is even more pronounced for marginalized women. Women and people of color are most likely to utilize work-family programs,[xviii] and are most negatively impacted when such policy is not available. The United States’ tendency to fasten work-family support to the employer creates challenges for marginalized populations most likely to occupy low-wage roles without benefits.[xix] These jobs are often filled by younger or less-educated people, women, or single parents, while large firm employees and men are the most likely recipients of employer-funded work-family benefits.[xx]

This system gives privileged individuals freedom to pursue the career and family they desire while marginalized people struggle to break out of low-income or unfulfilling job prospects as they do not have the proper work-family policy available.[xxi] The harder people have to work to care for their families and afford basic needs, the less available they are to return to school, prioritize growth, or opt out of fruitless career paths.

Moving Forward

 There is much societal praise for women who seem to do it all. Images of mothers rushing out of a conference room in their business suit to deliver homemade cookies to a school fundraiser are plentiful in portrayals of empowered women on-screen and TV. What is less visible are the waitresses counting how many days they can stay home from work with their sick child before they cannot pay rent, or the single parents on welfare because there is not an affordable and trustworthy childcare option in their neighborhood so they had to forgo their career. The absence of work-family policy in the United States is not simply an inconvenience. For those most privileged, supportive policies allow parents and women to advance in the workplace without sacrificing their families. For others, work-family policy is a means of survival. Americans need policy that considers all of its’ people and not just the positionality of the lawmakers. When this occurs, this country can finally begin to match other countries in supporting the advancement of women as both mothers and professionals.

References

[i] Earle, Alison, Mokomane, Zitha & Heymann, Jody. 2011. “International perspective on work-family policies: Lessons from the world’s most competitive economies.” Future of Children 191-200.

[ii] Notten, Natascha, Grunrow, Daniela & Verbakel, Ellen. 2017. “Social policies and families in stress: Gender and educational differences in work-family conflict from a European perspective.” Social Indicators Research 1281-1305.

[iii] Glynn, S.J. 2020. “The rising cost of inaction on work-family policies.” Center for American Progress, January 21.

[iv] Budig, Michelle J., Misra, Joya & Boeckmann, Irene. 2016. “Work-family policy tradeoffs of mothers? Unpacking the cross-national variation in motherhood earnings penalties.” Work and Occupations 119-177.

[v] Kim, Taehee & Mullins, Lauren Bock. 2016. “How does supervisor support and diversity management affect employee participation in work/family policies?” Review of Public Personnel Administration 80-105.

[vi] Liebenberg, R.D. 2017. “The effect of implicit biases.” The Young Lawyer 1-17.

[vii] Budig, Michelle J., Misra, Joya & Boeckmann, Irene. 2016. “Work-family policy tradeoffs of mothers? Unpacking the cross-national variation in motherhood earnings penalties.” Work and Occupations 119-177.

[viii] Budig, Michelle J., Misra, Joya & Boeckmann, Irene. 2016. “Work-family policy tradeoffs of mothers? Unpacking the cross-national variation in motherhood earnings penalties.” Work and Occupations 119-177.

[ix] Hada, Mandel & Shalev, Michael. 2009. “How welfare states shape the gender pay gap: A theoretical and comparitive analysis.” Social Forces 1873-1912.

[x] Gurchiek, Kathy. 2019. “Availability, use of paternity leave remains rare in U.S.” Society for Human Resource Management, August 16.

[xi] Kim, Taehee & Mullins, Lauren Bock. 2016. “How does supervisor support and diversity management affect employee participation in work/family policies?” Review of Public Personnel Administration 80-105.

[xii] Moors, Amy C., Malley, Janet E. & Stewart, Abigail J. 2014. “My family matters: Gender and perceived support for family commitments and satisfaction in academic among postdocs and faculty in STEMM and non-STEMM fields.” Pscyhology of Women Quarterly 460-474.

[xiii] Child Care Aware of America. 2018. The U.S. and the high cost of child care: A review of prices and proposed solutions for a broken system. Accessed 2020. https://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/3957809/COCreport2018_1.pdf.

[xiv] Glynn, S.J. 2020. “The rising cost of inaction on work-family policies.” Center for American Progress, January 21.

[xv] Moors, Amy C., Malley, Janet E. & Stewart, Abigail J. 2014. “My family matters: Gender and perceived support for family commitments and satisfaction in academic among postdocs and faculty in STEMM and non-STEMM fields.” Pscyhology of Women Quarterly 460-474.

[xvi] Glynn, S.J. 2020. “The rising cost of inaction on work-family policies.” Center for American Progress, January 21.

[xvii] Hada, Mandel & Shalev, Michael. 2009. “How welfare states shape the gender pay gap: A theoretical and comparitive analysis.” Social Forces 1873-1912.

[xviii] Kim, Taehee & Mullins, Lauren Bock. 2016. “How does supervisor support and diversity management affect employee participation in work/family policies?” Review of Public Personnel Administration 80-105.

[xix] National Women’s Law Center. 2019. “State and Local Laws Advancing Fair Work Schedules.” National Women’s Law Center. October. Accessed 2020. https://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fair-Schedules-Factsheet-v2.pdf.

[xx] Glass, Jennifer, Simon, Robin W. & Anderson, Matthew A. 2016. “Parenthood and happiness: Effects of work-family reconciliation policies in 22 OECD countries.” American Journal of Sociology 886-929.

[xxi] National Women’s Law Center. 2019. “State and Local Laws Advancing Fair Work Schedules.” National Women’s Law Center. October. Accessed 2020. https://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fair-Schedules-Factsheet-v2.pdf.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *