A Woman’s Work: The Failures of American Parental Leave Policies


This past year, women in positions of power have attempted to diagnose the continuing lack of leading women. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg told women to “lean in to” their jobs, Yahoo’s Marissa Meyer told all her employees to quit working from home, and former Director of Policy Planning Anne Marie Slaughter told us we could never “have it all” to begin with. Even with the elitist tones of their arguments, they are all pointing to an ever-present problem: women still find themselves having to precariously strain the distance between two wrongfully deemed unconnected and unrelated identities—that of a mother and that of a professional employee. This is disproportionately experienced by women in every economic sector—while Marissa Meyer can build a nursery next to her office to take care of her child from work, Brown University employees can’t get pregnant for the first four years of their employment if they want to get guaranteed leave, and for even more women, the idea of staying with their child after birth is trumped by the need of their salary to maintain their family.

Indeed, one of the continuing impediments against true employment equality is employer’s consistent refusal to accommodate pregnancy. As women begin to play a more determinant role in the professional world, the question of parental leave policies is becoming even more salient. Despite the fact that our countries’ lawmakers constantly laud the importance and vitality of the American family, the birth of a child can sometimes be the most challenging economic and professional issue families have to face in the United States. A 2004 Harvard study reported that out of 168 countries, 163 provided some form of paid leave to women who undertook childbirth, and 45 also guarantee paid paternal leave. In stark contrast, the United States does not guarantee any paid parental leave.

There are only two national laws that address the issues of maternal or parental leave. Even with these measures, nearly half of all first time mothers in the U.S. do not receive any form of paid leave from their jobs, according to a report filed by the U.S. Census Bureau. The first national law passed to protect new mothers was the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA.) Passed in 1978, this act criminalized employee discrimination based on pregnancy status; as a result, women cannot be fired, refused to be hired, or denied a promotion because they are pregnant. Though the passage of this law was a significant milestone, it did not address the challenges that come after giving birth. If women needed to take more time off to take care of their child than their employer could provide through illness or disability benefits, they were often forced to leave their jobs, with no guarantee that their jobs would still be available when they returned.

This problem was partially addressed in 1995 by the second national law—The Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA. Through this law, eligible employees, in companies with more than fifty employees, are guaranteed to twelve weeks of unpaid job leave in the event that they must leave to take care of a newborn, seriously injured relative, or themselves after personal injury or illness. Although this law provided millions of workers with job security, it still only covers 60% of the workforce. Everyone who works in a small business, is self-employed, or has worked at a company for a limited amount of time is exempt from this law. Even more problematic is the fact that the leave is unpaid. There are many women who do qualify for the leave provided by the FMLA but are unable to take it because they cannot afford to go without income for three months, especially with the added costs of providing for a child.

In addition to the provisions guaranteed by these national laws, some states also provide programs that expand on the FMLA. In Rhode Island, women who are medically certified to be “disabled” due to childbirth are able to take up to thirty weeks of paid or partially paid leave through the state’s short-term disability insurance. Obviously, there are serious theoretical implications to labeling pregnancy and childbirth as “disabilities.” The use of short-term disability insurance in granting parental leave excludes adoptive parents and those who bypass childbirth. Beyond the problematic aspects of these disability benefits, there are still nineteen states that do not provide a single benefit plan for pregnant mothers and there are no states that provide both guaranteed job protection and paid benefits. While many conservative lawmakers fight for the protection of a fetus, few seem to care for the job protection of its mother.

working mom

Perhaps the most egregious characteristic of the instituted programs for parental leave is the evident gap between a woman’s economic status and the amount of protection and compensation she can receive. The statistics speak for themselves—the National Partnership For Women & Families found that 76 percent of low-income workers have absolutely no access to paid leave of any kind, be it for illness or pregnancy. This means that low-income women, who at times are the most in need for added income when they welcome a new member into their family, are the least likely to receive it. These are the mothers that are at most risk of having to return to work almost immediately after giving birth.

And what about the fathers? Just as women are discouraged from continuing working after becoming pregnant in order to take care of their children, men are equally discouraged from leaving their jobs in order to partake in childcare. There are neither provisions in national law nor additional insurance for those who have not physically given birth. The underlying assumptions to all these policies point toward the continuing cultural belief that women do not belong in the workplace, that taking care of children is a labor not worthy of economic compensation, and that being a professional and being a mother are two mutually exclusive identities that must necessarily clash.

The key to understanding why parental leave is understated in this country is to first analyze why the limited measures of parental leave are provided in the first place. Perhaps one of the most prevalent assumptions underlying our understanding of parental leave policy is that this is solely a women’s issue, one that employers have to excuse. This is especially highlighted by the fact that these policies are catered towards excusing the specific act of giving birth, and the physical “disablement” that comes along with it, often ignoring the childcare that comes after the fact. Women are given time off from work in order to recover from giving birth, not to foster a healthy and necessary bond with their newborn. 

Even more troubling is the pathologization of pregnancy and birth created by short-term disability insurance. As Randi Irwin wrote in response to the New School’s parental leave policy, using short-term disability insurance as a compensation for paid parental leave “implicitly identifies the act of giving birth as an event that disables the female body.” Instead of focusing the purpose of parental leave as an opportunity for mothers and their newborns to develop their relationship, this policy marks the women’s body as injured and in need from recovery. Maternity then becomes an issue of disability, and pregnant workers, just like any “disabled” person, are culturally portrayed and understood as weak and incapable bodies which need a leave from work in order to recover from their incapacitated state. Indeed, when women file for short-term disability leave, they have to categorize themselves as “incapable” and demonstrate the extent of their injuries. Is it that women are incapable of working after giving birth or are employers incapable, or unwilling, to accommodate working conditions to allow women to partake in the necessary care of their child while retaining their employment? As Gail Landsman explains in her discussion on the PDA, “by defining pregnancy as a disability, and dealing only with issues of childbearing rather than of child rearing, the act failed to effectively address tensions between women’s work and their reproductive roles.” This notion of parental leave as a response to disability only strengthens the conception that pregnancy invariably weakens women, making labor and motherhood incompatible, because commitment to one field means a lack of passion or care in another.

Beyond understanding the issue as one of disability, current policies frame the necessity for parental leave on the basis of economic productivity. When the FMLA was being introduced into legislature, all of the conversation surrounding the bill was geared toward proving to employers and government institutions that parental leave would increase productivity. The effectiveness of the law was measured in dollar amounts: the cost of implementation and the impacts on worker productivity were examined to determine if paid-parental leave would be a positive investment for employers. Lawmakers felt it necessary to convince employers that this was an issue they should be concerned with, indicating that parental leave need not come out of a spirit of incorporation and equal opportunity for female workers, but as a measure to eventually make more profit. Seen here yet again, the question of childcare is primarily understood as a woman’s issue, a blessing-turned-burden that can only rest on the mother’s shoulders, forcefully relegating women to the sphere of the home. When something is framed as a “women’s issue,” it invariably makes it necessitate support and legitimation. As Lucinda Findley writes, framing parental leave solely as a women’s issue “makes it hard for judges, legislators, or employers, most of whom still are men, to take the issue seriously or to understand its ramifications.” The issue is legitimized in terms of economic productivity to make it seem relevant.

Brown University is no exception. There can be several more technical additions made to the parental leave policy at Brown to make it more in line with the anti-discriminatory platitude it pronounces. As of now, Brown provides six weeks paid leave for mothers or adoptive parents. It is unclear whether the “eligible staff” that can collect this pay covers all staff or only faculty members. The one overwhelming offense of the Brown policy is that it is limited to staff who have been employed for over four years. If a female employee gets pregnant before the four-year mark, they are not entitled to any job secured leave or compensation.

Brown must eliminate the four-year time mark stipulated in its parental leave policy. It should also be stipulated that for faculty members, any time taken for parental leave will not affect their sabbatical status or affect their chances for attaining tenure. Brown should provide measures for employees, both male and female and both faculty and staff, to modify their duties if they need to while working full or part time, in order to allow them to spend more time on childcare, all the while ensuring that their job would be secured when they decided to return to a full workload. This means that faculty could choose to remain active in administrative duties, while forgoing teaching classes, for example. Similar measures should be provided for staff.

Additionally, Brown should invest in comprehensive  child care services on campus for all of its employees and students. After the closing of Taft Child Care Center and a year of advisory boards and reports, Brown has expanded its childcare provisions within community child care centers. Yet all the gaps are still not filled. Since Brown will not build its own private day care center, parents are often conflicted between job responsibilities that run past the time in which community day care centers are running. The Brown administration needs to continue its commitment to making affordable and available child care a reality for all of its employees and students. Any less would propagate the already present gap between women and men in positions within academia. 

Beyond the technical changes that can be imposed to improve employers parental leave policy and child care provisions at Brown and beyond, perhaps the greatest changes can come from shifting our perceptions of the workplace and parenthood. We need to shift away from a workplace that solely welcomes a male definition of an employee and then makes added accommodations for female employees. Instead of trying to fit our female employees into a male worker prototype, we must create policies that actively incorporate all employees. We must reconceptualize our notion of what work is considered valuable, and what commitments are considered worthy. The long-held, male-created understanding of work commitment as necessitating long hours and uninterrupted periods of employment must be shifted to a more encompassing nature of work that allows for flexible and shorter hours, that is open to employees working from home, that provides forms of child care, that encourages and allows for co-parenting, and that, most importantly, recognizes the valid and significant part that family can play in the lives of all of its employees, regardless of gender. This new framework for understanding employment must stem from the valuation of our innate interconnectedness; it must once and for all dissolve the illusory wall dividing family and profession. Once this is accomplished, parental leave policies will cease being measures to equate women to men or to hand them out special treatment and instead be understood as laws that ultimately benefit all members involved.

 Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Contributing Writer 

All images found via Google Image Search


Dowd, Nancy E. Marternity Leave: Taking Sex Differences into Account, 54 Fordham L. Rev. 699 (1986),

Expecting Better: A State-by-State Analysis of Parental Leave Programs. Rep. National Partnership For Women & Families, 2005. Web. 16 Dec. 2011.  

Finley, Lucinda M. “Transcending Equality Theory: A Way out of the Maternity and the Workplace Debate.” Columbia Law Review, Vol. 86, No. 6 (Oct., 1986), pp. 1118-1182. Published by: Columbia Law Review Association, Inc. 

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory.” Feminist Formations, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Fall 2002), pp.1-32. In Print 

Irwin, Randi, and H. H. Williams. “Critical Reflections on the New School’s Maternity Leave Policy.” Canon Magazine. Canon Magazine. Web. 16 Dec. 2011. 

Landsman, Gail. “Negotiating Work and Womanhood.” American Anthropologist , New Series, Vol. 97, No. 1 (Mar., 1995), pp. 33-40. Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association. 

“University of Rhode Island – ADVANCE Program – Parental Leave Policy.” The University of Rhode Island. Web. 16 Dec. 2011. 

U.S. Census Bureau. (2011, October). Maternity Leave and Employment Patterns For First Time Mothers 1961-2008, Retrieved December 14, 2011, from 

Vogel, Lise. “Debating Difference: Feminism, Pregnancy, and the Workplace.” Feminist Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 1990), pp. 9-32. Published by: Feminist Studies, Inc. 

Weinzweig, Marjorie. “Pregnancy Leave, Comparable Worth, and Concepts of Equality.” Hypatia , Vol. 2, No. 1, Philosophy and Women Symposium (Winter, 1987), pp. 71-101. Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of Hypatia, Inc. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3809861.


  1. Loved your post! It might worth thinking about a few uncomfortable things: Any nation that guarantees paid maternity leave for women will cause private firms not to hire women* (which is why countries that have paid leave policies without requiring paid leave for fathers have high female employment rates, but women’s employment is confined to non-management positions). So when it prevent women from accessing high-paid or management positions, it’s not necessarily enough to have paid leave for women alone.

    There’s alot of things that get tricky in class differences among women. Highly educated women don’t strictly have an incentive to support expensive welfare policies when they can afford private care labor assistance. I have no idea how to bridge that without a strong women’s solidarity movement, but esp in the US it’s worth recognizing that women’s payoffs for particular policies differ by class.

    One last thing: in terms of changing how we valorize work, it seems like an institution or nation (if you’re arguing for a more top-down approach for Brown) can best achieve re-valorization by subsidizing unpaid care labor (tricky stuff, Nancy Folbre has great ideas), or by “requiring” men to participate in care labor–a whole different article, probably haha. Anyways, I love your writing! It’s great.

    *For example, if I’m a company, why would I hire a woman as my CEO and risk losing her for 3 months on maternity leave when I could just hire a man?

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