Can Maternity Leave Policies Actually Hurt Working Women?

Half of the American workforce is made up of women, yet we continue to live in a country where women are not guaranteed paid time off when they have a child. In fact, the United States is the only industrialized country that doesn’t have a federal paid maternity leave policy.

How is it that countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan offer paid maternity leave to women, but the United States does not?

Turns out then when companies do offer women paid maternity leave, the results aren’t always as positive as you would think. A new study from the consulting firm Mercer has found that while companies with paid maternity leave policies in place have more employed women, these women are promoted to executive levels at a much slower place.

What’s the problem?

Well, it’s not that women are unfocused or more committed to their families than their careers. That’s not the case at all as fellow Care2 blogger Kevin Matthews points out in a post about a separate study which found that women with kids are actually more productive at work than those without children. Instead what’s happening is that with a paid maternity leave policy in place, said companies feel they have done their job in creating a supportive work environment for women and skirt any other programs.

“It’s very easy to check the box,” says Pat Milligan, president of Mercer’s North America region.

Simply checking the box, however, is not enough. Without a proactive approach to support women’s advancement they fall behind, and even with a policy in place, women may not feel it’s in their best interest to actually take leave. As the Washington Post points out, these polices may formally be in place, but they are informally frowned upon. When a woman doesn’t feel safe taking advantage of a benefit that is rightfully hers, we have to take pause and think why that is the case.

In fact, statistics prove that new moms overwhelmingly don’t take advantage of this benefit. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average maternity leave in the U.S. is about 10 weeks, but 50 percent of women only take half of it. Further data reveals that 16 percent of new moms only take one to four weeks off, and 33 percent take no formal time off at all.

Why would a woman return to work immediately after giving birth?

While for many it is a financial decision as more and more women take over the breadwinner roll in their families, others fear the perception they will face as a new mom and the impact their absence will have on the trajectory of their career. Perhaps too it is the Superwoman phenomenon that makes women feel the need to be Supermoms too. After all if Marisa Meyer can get back to work in just two weeks, we can too. Meyer for the record though was equally celebrated and criticized for her decision.

Men don’t fair any better when it comes to paternity leave policies, which are offered at a much less degree than maternity leave policies, and often face the same concerns women have for decades. According to a recent New York Times article, if a paternity policy is even offered men generally only take a week off for fear of the stigma they will face. Even if more companies embrace the concept, the sticky point will be encouraging men to actually take it.

At the end of the day, neither men or women are being supported in their decision to have a family. Across the board we not only need more policies in place that allow parents to take paid time off, but culturally we need to create an environment that values parenthood and views it as a job that is just as important as any others.

What have been your experiences as working parents? Did your employer offer paid time off? Did you take it or feel it would impact your career negatively if you did? We would love to hear from you in the comments!

Photo Credit: Esparta Palma


Jerome S
Jerome S1 years ago


Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Barbara S.
Barbara S.2 years ago

Recent TV docs I've watched show that most European countries give far more vacation (sometimes up to 6 months because people can accrue days not taken, indefinitely), along with several weeks of maternity leave. The women and their spouses are fully covered by total healthcare for everyone. They pay roughly 25% more in overall taxes than the U.S.

Sadly, most U.S. people who dislike their jobs must stay in them because of seniority/job security.

The U.S. has the highest healthcare costs per person, yet ranks far lower, percentage-wise, in overall good health nationally and in the quality of services, even when a person carries the best (alleged) insurance money can buy. I know... we paid those outrageous premiums and co-pays for several years after I retired - $1800 /month in premiums by the time I was age 60, and prescriptions available under the plan(s) kept changing from quarter-to-quarter and year-to-year because drug companies aren't forced to negotiate what they can charge, even for life-sustaining medicines.

I think a great deal more of U.S. taxes are shifted to Black Ops (off-budget/secret programs) than are used to improve the welfare of the people and infrastructures. We get less bang for our bucks, and people here have far more stress which affects mental and physical health and ultimately, happiness.

Vesper B.
Vesper B4 years ago


Carole L.
Carole L4 years ago

Deborah W
“a hand-up approach now replaced with a hand-out policy, invasion of illegals bloating the already shaky job,”

and which jobs are “illegals” taking away from citizens, exactly. picking apples, cucumbers, strawberries, cherries, (seasonal work) etc. is that something 'you' want to do?

[[[How is it that countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan offer paid maternity leave to women, but the United States does not?]]]

pretty amazing.

Janis K.
Janis K4 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Emily G.
Emily J4 years ago

there's lots of things that companies and governments can do to help working families. My own workplace is quite progressive in it's attitude to parents, many of my colleagues have children and grandchildren and it makes their lives much easier. It allows flexible hours of work for parents to collect children from school, a creche on site, and they are quite sympathetic to parents bringing their children to work if they can't arrange childcare in emergencies. They also offer generous paternal leave as well as maternity leave. This doesn't harm the company, there is less employee absence due to childcare committments, and there's less risk of talented employees leaving or going part-time, and employees are happier I imagine it's better for the children as well.

Emily G.
Emily J4 years ago

The answer is paid maternity and paternity leave for everyone, if either parent could take leave to care for a child it would help to solve the problem of women being discriminated against for having families. Governments should support working families, since we have the problem of an ageing population in the developed world which will only get worse if people have to choose between their career and having a family, many will choose not to have children at all leading to an imbalance between the older and younger generation.

Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa4 years ago

Thank you

Jp Jp
Jp Jp4 years ago

So glad I live and work in a country with mandatory parental leave!!