Earlier this month we wrote about an interesting new study that showed that the number of women in the U.S. who take maternity leave has remained stagnant for the past 22 years, even though factors indicate that the number should have increased.
The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that in 1994, 278,000 women took maternity leave (both paid and unpaid), and as of 2015, only 300,000 women reported taking it. Even more shocking, this number has remained the same even in states that are offering these new, more improved maternity laws. The author of the study said, "If right now only half of all women are being paid, and if that number is only increasing a quarter of a percentage point each year, that means the number will go up 1 percentage point every four years," which means "it will take 200 years for paid maternity benefits for all employed women." Interestingly though, the number of employed fathers who take paternity leave has more than tripled. It's gone from 6,000 fathers in 1994 to 22,000 fathers in 2015.
So why are women not taking maternity leave even when it is offered to them? Well there are a number of reasons. It could be fear of missing work that will set them behind in their careers. Studies have shown that the "motherhood penalty" is very real. In a study conducted by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), it was found that traditionally employers saw returning mothers as being of lesser value. They therefore offered them less pay, fewer promotions and part-time work instead of flexible hours. We decided to go straight to a woman in the trenches who is opting not to take maternity leave. Natalie Sexton is the Director of Marketing at Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Company and is pregnant with her first child.
LEVO: Why is the number of women taking maternity leave remaining stagnant? Is it fear that if they take it they will lose job security?
NS: The number of women taking maternity leave is likely remaining stagnant for several reasons. Right now, only 14% of US workers have access to paid family leave, according to recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And with the costs of raising a child so high ($233,00 for middle income families) – some families may not be able to sustain a full, unpaid maternity leave. According a recent study by American Journal of Public Health, the percentage of women who have an option of a paid maternity leave has increased at such a slow pace, that it will be at least another decade before even half of women have that option.
Another reason is job security; While the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects American women’s jobs for up to 12 weeks after birth or adoption, this doesn’t apply to everyone. To be protected by the FMLA, you have to have work for a company with at least 50 employees or a public agency or school to qualify. You also have to have worked at least a year for your employer. Currently, only California, New Jersey and Rhode Island provide partially paid family and medical leave.
LEVO: Why do you think more men taking paternity leave now but for women the number is staying the same?
NS: Besides the fact that paternity leave is still somewhat new, I think the rise in paternity leave has a lot to do with the abandonment of traditional gender roles. Families are creating roles based on what keeps them going and happy –based on everyone’s needs – and not on what society’s norm is. The American Sociological Association suggests that some men see breadwinning as a stressful obligation, while many women may approach it as an opportunity or a choice. In fact, the study also suggests that as women made more money, their psychological well-being improved.
LEVO: Why will you work up until your due date?
My working circumstances are different from other women. I am the marketing director of Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Company, a clean label juice provider founded by my mother. Having my mom as CEO makes for a unique situation. While I have the benefit of being urged to take a full maternity leave (which I am truly grateful for), I have chosen not to take it on my own volition. It’s not a matter of job security, but rather the fear of slowing down in my career. As the namesake of the company, I do feel a strong sense of responsibility.
As director, I have helped the company achieve record growth in the last few years, and I am completely motivated to continue that growth. I admit that I am what some would label a “workaholic.” I think it’s so important to maximize the time I have been given. Sitting at home waiting for the baby to arrive would drive me crazy.
I believe that becoming a mother is one of the greatest gifts a woman can receive in this world. I feel incredibly blessed for this little bundle of joy. But I don’t think that, contrary to society’s belief, I must give up my livelihood to be a good Mother. Women are incredible beings – and even more incredible multi-taskers.
Do you think more women should take advantage of their maternity leave?
This is a very personal decision and I think each woman has a right to do what she believes is best for herself and her family. Each expectant mom is different and should celebrate and learn from her new role as she sees fit. However, I do strongly feel that every woman should be provided the option of a full maternity leave to make the decision for herself without worrying about job security, scheduling issues or finances.
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