June 29, 2005

Why Family Leave

Ruth Franklin's cover story on motherhood in the New Republic this week is really quite good: wide-ranging, contentious, the whole deal. Not surprisingly, one more-or-less unstated current throughout the piece is that theses motherhood woes could be infinitely reduced if men actually pitched in once in a while; no shit, right, but no one has even begun to figure out how to do this. Sweden, for example, has tried various financial incentives to encourage dads to take parental leave, but as far as I know, it hasn't even come close to correcting the imbalance. Worth noting, I suppose, that many of these problems may not be policy problems per se. That aside, though, this passage from Franklin's piece struck me as a fairly obvious policy problem:
Unfortunately, what women want and what employers want are not entirely the same. … Opting out [i.e., for motherhood] is relatively easy for women who can afford it, but opting in--returning to work--is more difficult. In the study conducted by Hewlett and Buck Luce, only three-quarters of women who wanted to rejoin the workforce were able to do so, and only 40 percent returned full-time. (Tellingly, 93 percent of the women who took time off wanted to return at some point to their careers.) When they do return, women who have opted out can be penalized by a cut in earning power of more than one-third.
As it turns out, Heather Boushey of CEPR has been doing a lot of work on this very subject, and recently put out a study showing that scheduling flexibility—that is, allowing workers to set or alter their schedules—and anticipated paid leave for family caregiving, have either positive effects or little to no effects on wages. (Other types of workplace flexibility, like part-time work, obviously do have a huge effect on wages.) Currently, of course, there is nothing of the sort being offered. Even the Family and Medical Leave Act, a policy which helped catapult Bill Clinton into office in 1992 by giving him the support of married women—the first time in over a decade that any Democratic candidate had won this group (hint, hint)—even that only requires employers to offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and even that still leaves 43 percent of workers, those in small businesses, uncovered. And yes, business groups are trying to roll back the FMLA. No wonder, etc.

At any rate, that's all obvious, and something good liberals such as Nancy Folbre have been harping on for years. (Democrats, in their infinite wisdom, did everything they could to shy away from the issue in 2004. I notice that Anna Greenberg did a poll finding that only 19 percent of married women cited "women's rights" as a reason to vote for Kerry. Hm, I wonder why...) The feminist case for reform here speaks for itself. One interesting thing to wonder, though, is whether businesses will start coming around to the "family-friendly" side eventually. Perhaps. The Institute for Women's Policy Research recently put out a report arguing that providing seven paid "sick leave" days per year would yield a net savings to business of $28 billion, thanks to higher productivity and whatnot. I'm sure the Chamber of Commerce will be on hand to quibble over the figures here, but the principle is at least out there and reasonable.

On the broader scale, businesses are going to have to start grappling with the reality that, as a nation, we're investing a ton in female education—women have more undergraduate degrees than men, etc.—and not getting as much "payoff" as we could be, thanks to the fact that the workplace is basically structured to prevent women from reaching their full potential, work-wise. Franklin cites two economists who note: "Indeed, companies that can develop policies and practices to tap into the female talent pool will enjoy a substantial competitive advantage." Smart point, and while I'll admit that conservatives usually have good reason to be wary of the "conservative" case for X left-wing policy, in this instance I think that case is actually a good one.
-- Brad Plumer 3:41 AM || ||