Marching On for Working Moms

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This weekend, like millions of feminists across the U.S., I will once again be in the crowd at a Women’s March. I’m eager to participate in this march with a global perspective—one that is more critical in the U.S. for women now than ever.

Compared to other industrialized nations, the status of women in America is appalling. We are decades behind other countries—and issues like the lack of paid family leave and universal childcare are the major roadblocks to our equality. These issues need to be at the forefront of our movement.

Across Europe, universal healthcare has already been achieved and includes free labor, delivery and birth control. Most liberal democracies have a Department of Women’s Affairs to address complex issues of women in the workplace and gender equality. Some countries offer nursing hours to new mothers re-entering the workplace and require the employers to provide an onsite daycare center. Others provide part-time positions in the government to mothers of young children.

But women-friendly policies don’t just emerge in the “utopia” of Northern Europe. The countries that provide these benefits to mothers include Kuwait and Turkey, which offer these progressive policies with the aim of keeping young women in the workforce. These are not countries that are known for women’s equality—but they are countries where strong women have fought hard for improved employment conditions for working mothers.

There are only two countries in the world without paid family leave: the United States and Papua New Guinea. Here at home, the lack of paid family leave, coupled with expensive, hard-to-find childcare, has systematically decimated female leadership. Without structural reforms to our society, calls to promote increased female leadership will remain only lip-service.

(Paul and Cathy Becker / Creative Commons)

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed into law in the U.S. in 1993, but it only provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new parents—and given the stipulations of the law, the FMLA really only covers approximately 60 percent of workers.

Even as a diplomat with the State Department and a federal employee, I had zero days of paid maternity leave when I had my first child in 2009. Zero. My husband and I cobbled together sick days and vacation time to be home with our child, but we were neither sick nor taking a vacation. We were merely caring for our newborn child.

A recent study by the National Institutes of Health showed that just 41 percent of women in the U.S. receive paid maternity leave. Those that do are granted an average of 3.3 weeks off and make only 31 percent of their salary during that time. Just to our north, in Canada, new parents receive 52 weeks of maternity leave for an entire year after the birth of a child; across the ocean, most European nations hover around one year of paid leave.

Research shows that American working-class women, women of color and parents working for low-wage jobs are much less likely to have any paid time off with their children. The NIH survey demonstrates that “women from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely to have access to paid leave, and can’t afford unpaid leave.” The same researchers recommend that “federal policy that supports paid leave may be one avenue to address such disparities and should be modified to reflect accepted international standards.”

The lack of paid family leave, as well as the absence of affordable childcare, is a death sentence to the careers of many brilliant young women—the very same women that we now advocate should be taking leadership roles throughout the country. When there is no paid family leave, women drop out of the workforce in their twenties and thirties in droves, partly due to unpaid leave and partly due to the astronomically high price of hard-to-find childcare.

In Seattle, it currently costs over $2,700 per month to put an infant in childcare; with two kids, young families pay a staggering $4,000 per month or more for care, a price tag that is often higher than the cost of a mortgage or monthly rent. I had my second child in Seattle, as a graduate student—and turned over 100 percent of my paltry salary to childcare.

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation and one of the only liberal democracies that does not subsidize or provide universal childcare, and that is a major factor in women’s work lives. It is shocking how many educated, bright women leave the labor force in the U.S.—but it is understandable why they do.

New in their careers when they start having children, these women have salaries that barely cover childcare. With the prospect of barely breaking even financially after they pay for childcare, or sometimes even losing money, mothers make the understandable choice to raise their own children and leave their careers. If their husbands or partners make more money, it is often an economic decision of which partner will quit working. Most often, it is the woman.

During this time, women who remain in the workforce lose critical job promotions, stop developing their professional expertise and miss foundational leadership experiences that could lead to achieving executive leadership positions later in their careers.

In countries such as France and Germany, childcare is subsidized; as a result, childcare is affordable and its quality is publicly accountable. For any parent who chooses to stay home, the German system provides a tax credit, but the lion’s share of working professionals choose to stay in the workplace after having children.

Can you imagine how our lives would be different if all new parents—regardless of race, class, religion or sexual orientation—had access to free, quality childcare? What talent are we losing in our country’s business, security or political leadership by forcing young women to make these impossible choices?

In 1971, Congress voted to fund free universal childcare, and then-President Nixon vetoed it. “If you are a woman who did not live through this era, you may not know that this ever happened,” Emily Badger wrote in the Washington Post. “The sudden realization of which somehow makes the disappointment all the more biting.”

Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, summed up this feeling in her book, Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, and Family. When it comes to American exceptionalism, she wrote, “the United States is largely exceptional for what it is not doing.”

Women fighting stateside for their equality can and should use the best practices of other nations as a blueprint for creating better basic rights and policies here at home. By examining the status of women in other countries, we can write our own playbook here in the U.S.—and craft a pragmatic vision of what true equality can look like.

We do not have to reinvent the wheel. While no society has achieved full gender equality, there are numerous superb policies in other countries that address the systemic inequality of all women in the workplace and society.

Dutch and Danish women, for example, have succeeded in gaining so many more rights than their American counterparts. In the Netherlands and Denmark, there are strong, enforceable anti-sexual harassment laws in the workplace and policies ensuring fair labor practices. Many nations in Northern Europe mandate that women have a 50 percent representation in political parties. This creates a measurable positive impact on women’s equality laws and policy reforms.

I am a long-time observer of Scandinavian politics, and I find it painful to witness how the U.S. still lacks many basic rights and policies for women’s equality adopted decades ago in these countries. A little-known benefit across Scandinavia is roughly translated as a government “child subsidy.” Across the region, parents receive a monthly check for 18 years to pay for their children’s needs. In Sweden, families are paid approximately $150 a month per child for clothing, food and school supplies until the child is 16, and Swedish parents are also entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave when a child is born or adopted.

How much would these types of subsidies help working families across the United States? It’s not a question of cost: We can afford it. (We’re the richest country in the world.) It’s a question of political will instead—and our own determination in demanding such policies.

In her book Agenda Setting, the UN, and NGOs: Gender Violence and Reproductive Rights, Jutta M. Joachim describes the urgent and critical stage for social movements in which they define their grievances, map out a plan to achieve their goals, unite members and delineate the limited financial and human resources they have on-hand. It’s time for all of us to ask these hard questions and come together to advance our equality—at work and in the culture at-large.

What is the women’s movement going to stand for in 2019? How will we create a roadmap for long-term systematic change for women? When we take to the streets tomorrow, we should be as ready as ever to answer these questions.


Dr. Elise Carlson-Rainer serves as Assistant Professor of International Relations and Doctoral Faculty Member in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Public University and is Affiliate Faculty with the Department of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington. She is a former U.S. diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor and also worked with the U.S. Mission to the UN and the United States Agency for International Development. Elise earned her Ph.D. from the University of Washington in the field of human rights and foreign policy.