Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about women in the workplace.

Marianne Cooper is a sociologist at Stanford University and was the lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” Her book, “Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times,” examines how families are coping in an insecure age.

There are many things that make the United States different from the rest of the developed world. One of them is that we are the only developed economy that does not provide paid maternity leave. 

I’m often asked why this is the case. My latest answer: “Because American babies raise themselves. Those babies in other countries — they’re slackers. They actually need their parents’ help.”

My joke highlights the kinds of assumptions that must exist in order to explain why the United States lacks any kind of paid family leave policy. No, I don’t really believe that lawmakers think American babies raise themselves. But I do believe that many assume we don’t need paid family leave because someone in the family is (or should be) home caring for the baby — and that someone is a woman.

When it comes to women and work, the largest myth of all is that working is somehow optional. Like men, women work for personal fulfillment and a passion for their job. Also like men, women work to support themselves and their families, and always have. The reality in the United States today is that earning money is an absolute necessity for the vast majority of women. And the sad truth is that we aren’t doing anything to support them or their families — not because we can’t, but because we won’t.

Increasingly, women are the economic backbone for families in our country. Today, 70 percent of mothers work. More than 40 percent of mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners for their families, earning at least half of their family’s income. An additional 22 percent are co-breadwinners, earning at least a quarter or more of their family’s income.

The influx of women, particularly mothers, into the workforce over the past few decades has been one of the largest transformations in American life. As a country we have responded to this massive change by, well, pretty much doing nothing. Only 13 percent of workers can receive paid family leave through their employer. The majority of mothers (54 percent) don’t have access to paid sick days to care for their sick children. And we are all on our own to find and pay for child care, which is extremely expensive. Child-care fees for two children in a child-care center are higher than annual median rent payments in every state.

To be clear, it’s not that we can’t respond with a set of policies that reflect the modern realities of American families wherein women, too, work. Other countries have. In fact, we’ve actually done it before. During World War II, when there was a great need for women to work, we had a federally administered universal child-care program funded by the Lanham Act. Almost every state received money to build child-care centers, provide teacher training and subsidize day-care costs for parents. 

Recent analysis of the Lanham Act found that the program was extremely beneficial for children and was associated in the long run with a lower high school drop-out rate, a higher college completion rate and higher earnings. The disadvantaged benefited most from the program. After the war was over, and the pressing need for women to work abated, the funding was stopped and most of these child-care centers closed.

What we have today is Dickensian. Every day in this country we have parents who must choose between losing their job and caring for a sick child. Every day there are families that fall into poverty because the birth of a child means they can’t work for a time. Every day parents drop children off at low-quality day-care centers because it’s the only thing they can afford. 

Which brings us back to myths. The problem with myths such as “working is optional for women,” or “only teenagers work in minimum-wage jobs,” is that they prevent us from seeing things as they are and responding in a meaningful way.

If instead we accept the fact that women are now the breadwinners for the majority of American families, then it’s clear what needs to be done. We need policies that make it possible for people to both work and care for their families. We need programs that ensure that all children are educated and cared for while their parents are working. We need jobs that provide women and families with economic security and dignity.

For example, a national paid family leave policy would keep families afloat while workers take time to care for themselves and their loved ones. These kinds of policies increase well-being, keep women more attached to the workforce and lower the need to turn to public assistance. Analysis has shown that the impact on business is typically neutral to positive. We could also focus on doing things such as raising the minimum wage or closing the gender wage gap. If women earned the same as comparable men, it would reduce the poverty rate of employed women by half.

The American family has changed and will continue to evolve. More than half of children born today to women younger than 30 are born to unmarried mothers. These trends require us to let go of myths such as “it’s optional for women to work,” and instead embrace truths: The overwhelming majority of mothers now do work, and must. We need to adjust to these new realities and have policies that reflect the world as it is, not the world as it isn’t.

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