A few weeks back on The New Yorker website, Jill Lepore answered questions about her article Baby Food, which explored the history and cultural implications of pumping breastmilk. I had a few issues with the original article, which I’ve discussed here and here. By and large, the questions seemed like heavily curated softballs to me, but there was one that I thought was worth exploring further:
Do you think that the recent campaigns for breastfeeding could eventually lead to longer maternity leave for mothers in the U.S., or lead to a legal mandate for part-time work for a year for mothers who would prefer it? My company refused to allow me to work part-time for a year so I could nurse my four-month-old more frequently. The reason? Morale in the office would suffer if new mothers were allowed to work part-time.
Lepore expressed sadness and dismay at this woman’s story, and part of me agrees. It is exhausting to keep breastfeeding going and work full-time, and it would help many women keep nursing if they could work part-time or take a leave of absence. On the other hand, I can easily see why a company would deny this request.
There are financial costs associated with longer maternity leave, but that’s not what this company is really addressing. What the poster says is that the company wouldn’t give her the leave because others in the office would be bitter, angry, or jealous. Unfortunately, I think this is often a very real concern; when someone is granted extended leave the following happens:
- Work is redistributed. This can be great for junior staff who are given new opportunities and responsibilities. It can also be a nightmare for those who are already overworked, and may have their own families. Many offices, especially during times of recession, are already spread thin; granting extended leaves can push colleagues to their breaking points, damaging morale.
- It feels unfair. For employees who may never have children, extended parental leave and part-time work benefits, feel like a special perk. Those without kids ask why they can’t take a leave to take care of an elderly or sick parent or address some other major life event. Anyone could probably make a good case for why they need an extended leave of absence. On the other hand, taking care of children and families confers long-term benefits on society as a whole.
- It affects continuity and institutional memory. Losing a good employee for three months can be rough; losing them for more than that creates a hole in the company that can damage daily operations. Good planning can limit the chaos, but even shifting a key staffer from full- to part-time work may lead to frustrating information gaps.
Sometimes people forget that unpaid leave is not “free” to your company. It costs money to hire replacements and pay overtime to colleagues who have to step in; indirectly, it’s likely to result in a loss of departmental knowledge. On the other hand, I have no doubt that these are issues that our best management experts can help to overcome.
In fact, the Obama administration has made expansion of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) a priority, and it’s likely that more and more research will be done to address these challenges so that children and mothers are better supported. From an economic perspective, smarter, healthier, well adjusted kids and families create a more robust workforce, and that’s good for everyone.
There’s one other elephant in the room: if longer leaves or part-time options were mandated by the government, would it be harder for women of child-bearing age to get good jobs? This may be part of the reasons why American companies have a far greater number of female executives than their European counterparts. I worry about backlash on this that could set women back, and wonder about solutions.
Are there ways that some of you have made longer leaves or part-time more acceptable to your employers and colleagues? Do you feel that women could be set back by the possibility of greater family leave?
- Ezra Klein at The American Prospect (liberal) does a very thorough analysis of the economics of family paid leave here.
- The Foundry at The Heritage Foundation (conservative) talks about why family paid leave might hurt women here.
- Washington Policy Watch talks about a 2008 study indicating that over half of US mothers lack paid maternity leave.
- HR professionals say that the FMLA in its current form is difficult to manage; Stephen Meyer writes about the top three biggest mistakes companies make around the FMLA.