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Maternity Leave: How Is It Being Addressed on Either a Local, National, or International Level?

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With both Republicans and Democrats talking about paid family leave, the time is ripe for a new national policy. The current patchwork of public and private policies does not meet the needs of mothers in the labor force. Positive outcomes from paid family leave are emerging from programs in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Yet, policy choices must be made to refine and implement a national program of paid family leave. These choices include who should be covered, how high should benefit amounts be, how long should they be paid, how should benefits be funded and administered, and should job protections be expanded?

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Depending on the details, parental leave policy can either reinforce or counteract the factors that work to exclude fathers from child care. Designing parental leave policy to promote greater gender equality, however, is not simply a question of making these policies more generous. In fact, depending on the policy particulars, increasing the generosity of parental leave policies can have the effect of reducing gender equality. Imagine, for example, a country that currently provides no time off and no financial support to new mothers and fathers. Given traditional gender roles and the earnings advantage of fathers in the labor market, we would expect that most married couples would arrange for the lower-earning mother to assume most of the early responsibilities of child care. Imagine that a country passed a law that provided one year of fully paid leave for mothers (but not fathers) of newborn children. The new policy would represent a substantial improvement with respect to the level of support provided to families with infants, but by restricting the support to new mothers, the policy would reinforce both the social norms and the market outcomes that already push mothers into – and keep fathers out of – caregiving roles

In fact, the new policy might well reduce gender equality in the long-run, relative to doing nothing, because it would likely induce more women to take longer breaks from work than was the case before the policy was enacted, leading mothers to fall farther behind fathers in the labor market. The same country, however, could spend roughly the same amount of its resources and design a parental leave policy that promoted a more equal distribution of child care responsibilities. Instead of guaranteeing mothers 12 months of fully paid parental leave, the country could provide mothers six months of fully paid leave and fathers six months of (non-transferable) fully paid leave. This alternative system would provide direct financial incentives for fathers to assume half (or at least some portion) of the infant-care responsibilities, even though, at first glance, the new system appears to be less generous for women. The terminology used to describe various types of leave across 21 countries varies widely (and is further complicated by the need to translate these national terms into English). Throughout this report, we use "parental leave" as an umbrella term that includes leaves for maternity, pregnancy, paternity, birth, adoption, and longer-term care of young children. In many European countries, "parental leave" is used to refer to leave granted to mothers or fathers for longer-term care of young children after an initial spell of what is usually referred to "maternity" or "paternity" leave. In some discussions of European leave policies, where the context demands, we will also use "parental leave"in this second, narrower sense.

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We are not able to identify the exact timing of births, since the June supplements give the month and year but not the day of birth (Desai S, Chase-Lansdale L, Michael R., 1989). Labor force status is measured in the week prior to the CPS survey (the reference week) which, during the birth month, may occur before or after the child was born.15 This matters for two reasons

First, our estimates refer to the birth month rather than the child’s first month of life and similarly for later months. For ease of exposition, we will sometimes refer to results in terms of months of child age. For example, we may discuss leave-taking during the child’s second month, when we really mean the second month following the birth month. Second, we will miss some short leaves that do not span the survey reference week. This is particularly relevant for men who generally take minimal amounts of leave. Thus, our estimates will accurately indicate the percentage of time parents are off work during a specified month, rather than the probability of their being on leave during that month. Three additional issues deserve mention. First, as discussed, we only have data on fathers married to and residing with the child’s mother.Although we cannot be certain, it seems probable that such fathers will take more leave than those not living with the mother (and possibly more than fathers cohabiting but not married), so that our estimates are likely to overstate the average amount of paternity leave used. Second, changes in the CPS preclude us from identifying cohabiters in a consistent manner. Third, we match individuals and families across survey months using the household identifier, household number, and personal line number (as recommended by the CPS user’s guide), with information on the month in the sample used to match families across survey months (Chatterji P, Markowitz S., 2005). Average match rates were 85 percent or higher within three-month periods (e.g., the birth month merged with two months prior to or after birth), and about 50 percent for periods more than six months apart (e.g., birth month merged with 10 months prior to the birth).

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Definitely, an increasing number of countries provide some type of childcare leave in addition to maternity and paternity leave, with 66 of the 169 countries assessed providing parental leave. This leave is found more frequently in higher income countries. Even when parental leave is available to both mothers and fathers, women are most often the ones who take parental leave after maternity leave. Many countries also make leave available to adoptive parents

Mothers and fathers in a number of countries enjoy leave policies instead of or beyond legislated provisions through collective bargaining agreements.

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Chatterji P, Markowitz S. Does the length of maternity leave affect maternal health? Southern Economic Journal. 2005;72(1):16–41.

Commission on Family and Medical Leave. A workable balance: report to congress on family and medical leave policies. Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau; 1996.

Conference Board. Family and medical leave. Work-Family Roundtable. 1994;4(6):1–14.

Desai S, Chase-Lansdale L, Michael R. Mother or market?: Effects of maternal employment on cognitive development of four year old children. Demography. 1989

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