A common refrain to explain the disparity of pay between women and men is that women leave to have babies. These babies grow up to be children, causing more stresses on women in terms of childcare and work/life balance (because apparently only women are supposed to juggle these things). Many women choose career paths that are more amenable to their life as a mother (and often pay less) or leave the workforce until their children are older. While this does not completely explain the pay disparity (really, there was a reason for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009), it does give insight into how the United States of America treats its working mothers.
There are only three countries that do not provide paid medical leave for working parents. One of them is the United States (if you would like to know, the other two are Papua New Guinea and Suriname). Saudi Arabia, which doesnít allow women to drive, provides 10 weeks of paid maternity leave. Afghanistan, where women risk death to get an education, gives new mothers 13 weeks. Overall, in most every country in the world, some level of paid maternity leave is available to working mothers.
Full disclosure: many of the countries that offer paid time off often pay a fraction of the salary. So while having more than 3 years maternity leave (really, Ukraine offers 166 weeks) may seem wonderful, many return to work much sooner as they canít afford to live on the reduced income. Nevertheless, these governments provide the benefit because they know when mothers (and fathers) are able to take the needed time to bond with their children, a stronger societal foundation is nurtured.
In 1993, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed, which provided job protection for employees that needed to take time off for any medical reason, including the birth (or adoption) of a new child. It provides 12 weeks (yes, dads, for you, too!), and their job has to be there when they return. However, this time off is unpaid. Thatís a lot less than a fraction of your salary.
In the U.S., it is up to employers to provide paid maternity leave. The more progressive companies use the offer of what should be a federally mandated benefit as a bargaining chip to lure quality workers. In April 2013, the working mom we love to hate, Yahooís CEO Marissa Mayer, increased the paid maternity leave for moms from 8 weeks to 16 weeks, and dads get 8 weeks of paid leave (though employees still canít work from home). This brings Yahoo in line with other tech companies, like Google, which offers up to 22 weeks and $500.00 in cash to spend on those new baby essentials. Like a maid.
Companies are under no legal obligation to provide paid maternity leave and most do not. The FMLA is a start, but after 20 years, it should be updated to require paid leave. For many companies, the financial burden of having to pay an employee for leave, as well as someone to do their job while they are gone, could be difficult. This is why the government provides the benefits (albeit sometimes limited) in order to contribute to the overall social good.
According to a 2011 McKinsey & Company report, Women in the Economy, women are 47% of the workforce. In fact, if no women had joined the workforce after 1970, our current GDP would be 25% less than it is today.
And we did it while having babies.
The least we can do is give working mothers the needed flexibility and paid time off to continue to contribute to society, both at home and in the board room. After all, not all of us can be Marissa Mayer and build a nursery next to our office.