One of the most commonly used arguments ‘justifying’ the gender pay gap is the time that working women are required to take off from their careers when they have children. What is commonly referred to as the Motherhood Penalty still sees women in the United States in 2022 earn, on average, only 83.4 cents in the dollar when compared with men. Even more concerning is the fact that this represents a drop from 2021, when it was 84.3 cents.
The overall impact of maternity leave provision on these comparative rates of pay needs to be considered, as it can be argued that time off from work to have children ultimately harms a woman’s career. Estimates vary, but it is generally agreed that a woman’s earning power drops by 4% for each child she has.
This view seems to be indirectly supported by the fact that only 5% of new fathers in the US took at least two weeks of paternity leave after their child was born, ostensibly because they were wary of the damage it could do to their work prospects.
In fact, in contrast to the motherhood penalty, there is said to be a phenomenon known as the fatherhood bonus, which sees men in the years after childbirth enjoy an increase in their salary (estimated to be in the region of 6%).
As well as being a cause of the gender pay gap, there are other ways in which maternity leave can impact on women’s careers. It can (albeit unconsciously) influence employers’ perception of a woman’s professional competence, while a lack of support before, during and after maternity leave can mean that as many of 40% of women consider leaving their jobs after they have returned to work.
In addition, the high costs of childcare, combined with a lack of financial support in this vital area, can lead to some women deciding not to return to work at all after having given birth, and this further contributes to the overall national shortfall in women’s earnings when compared to men.
Therefore, in the US more attention needs to be paid to the significant role paid maternity leave could and should play in the lives of working women, ensuring they are not disadvantaged as a result of having children, as well as securing their economic futures and supporting the health of women and their newborn children.
Maternity leave entitlements in the US
The gender pay gap in the US is further exacerbated by the lack of national maternity leave compared to other western economies. The U.S is virtually the only wealthy western economy that has no paid parental leave provisions.
Under the Family Medical Leave Act, pregnant women are entitled to 12 weeks’ unpaid leave, during which time their jobs must be held open for them (although certain conditions apply to this). However, the average amount of maternity leave offered nationally in 2022 was only 8 weeks.
Employers in the US are not obliged to pay workers during maternity leave, and in 2022 only 23% of workers in the private sector had access to this benefit, potentially placing a significant strain on new parents, as well as impacting on the gender pay gap.
Expectant and new mothers in the US are significantly worse off than their equivalents in other western countries when it comes to mandatory maternity leave and being compensated during time off work after giving birth.
How does maternity leave in the US compare with other countries?
Our northern neighbor certainly has a more generous maternity leave provision, and a working new mother in Canada can take a longer break from work (albeit without being paid) while still being able to maintain their job and career.
In Canada, mothers are entitled to 17 weeks’ unpaid maternity leave, provided they have been employed for at least 12 months prior to the due delivery date. Two additional weeks can be claimed when the actual delivery is later than the expected due date.
In addition, natural and adoptive parents in Canada are eligible for up to 63 weeks’ unpaid parental leave. If shared by both parents, an additional 8 weeks’ leave may be taken (71 weeks in total). Women in Canada who have given birth can combine both maternity leave and parental leave, giving them up to 78 weeks’ leave in total.
While this represents a better provision than that available to women in the US, the situation is even better in Singapore. Paid maternity leave is available for 16 weeks, which can be taken for up to four weeks before the expected due date, and up to 12 weeks after giving birth. This benefit is paid by the government and is available to both employees and workers who are self-employed.
In Taiwan, paid leave is also available for both parents for a period of 7 days (recently extended from 5 days). There is considerable flexibility in the Taiwanese scheme — for instance, paternity leave can be taken at any time within a 15-day window either before or after the birth. In addition, there is the option to take this leave in smaller units of time rather than as full days, e.g., a half day to attend medical appointments, etc.
New mothers in Australia can take up to 12 months’ unpaid maternity leave, with the option of requesting a further 52 weeks. During this time, up to 18 weeks’ maternity pay can be claimed, based on the current national minimum wage. This can consist of a continuous period of up to 60 days, plus an additional 30 days of 30 Flexible Paid Parental Leave in order to better manage family commitments.
Unpaid maternity leave in Australia does not have to be taken in a single block; some of the leave can be claimed at any time up to two years after a child has been born. Partners can also be eligible for up to 2 weeks’ paid leave.
This is similar to New Zealand, where new parents can take up to 52 weeks’ parental leave, consisting of 26 weeks’ primary carer leave, followed by a further 26 weeks’ extended leave. If you have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks (for a minimum of 10 hours per week), you are entitled to up to 26 weeks’ parental leave payments. In New Zealand, partners of new mothers are also entitled to 2 weeks’ leave.
In the United Kingdom, new mothers are entitled to 26 weeks’ unpaid Ordinary Maternity Leave, plus a further 26 weeks’ Additional Maternity Leave (52 weeks in total). Maternity leave cannot commence until 11 weeks before the expected due date, and at least two weeks’ leave after giving birth is mandatory (4 weeks in some circumstances).
While on leave, eligible new mothers in the UK may receive 39 weeks of Statutory Maternity Pay. For the first 6 weeks, this is paid at 90% of average weekly earnings before tax (AWE), then £156.66 per week for 33 weeks (or 90% of AWE, whichever is lower).
Overall, the US is lagging far behind other advanced western economies when it comes to paid and unpaid maternity leave.