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 paid family leave. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is president and chief executive of New America, a nonpartisan think tank, and author of “Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family.” Brigid Schulte is director of the Better Life Lab at New America and author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.” 

The bad news: In the latest World Bank report on the paid family leave policies of more than 170 countries, the United States once again shows up as one of only four that offers no such thing — alongside Tonga, Suriname and Papua New Guinea.

But here’s the good news: As the research mounts about the physical and mental health, child development and economic benefits of paid family leave, as states continue to pass local policies, and as presidential candidates from left and right have offered proposals, there is a slow and growing consensus that a national paid family leave program in the United States is no longer a matter of if, but when.

This puts the United States in position to leapfrog and learn from the mistakes and successes of programs in other countries and our own states. We have the opportunity to turn what some have called “abject cruelty” into a paid family leave policy for the 21st century.

The first lesson? Make leave equally available to men and women.

The United States is already ahead of the game in this regard — the unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act is already gender neutral. But that’s not the case in many other countries. The World Bank reports that women have an average of 106 days of paid maternity leave around the globe. That’s 15 times more than what men get: a paltry seven days. (Bulgaria, for example, gives mothers 410 days and fathers 15.)

Longer leave for mothers was initially envisioned as a way to keep them in the workforce and promote gender equality. But that’s not how they’ve worked. Instead, decades of experience shows that long leave for women only, understandably, has made private-sector employers reluctant to hire, retain and promote them. That’s why in Sweden — which from 1974 to 1995 offered only women generous maternity leave — most women wound up working part time in the public sector and are still juggling the traditional role of primary caregiver at home. (It’s of several countries now trying to promote gender equality by offering a “daddy quota.”)

And when countries have provided longer leave only to women and then asked employers to cover the cost of their leave, the research shows that’s led to outright discrimination. The World Bank report found that in 51 percent of the countries surveyed, governments pay for leave, 30 percent require employers to pay for it, and in 19 percent of the countries, the cost is shared.

Equal leave for men and women, paid for by some combination of employee and employer contributions out of paychecks — like Social Security — mitigates much of that discrimination. And there’s consensus from both the right and the left that a social insurance program is the best way to go.

The second lesson? Understand that men will need an additional nudge to take leave. 

Our culture still expects men to be breadwinners and providers — so for fathers, taking leave is a harder sell. Yet men overwhelmingly do want paternity leave. They just need a nudge, in the form of a requirement or expectation, to be willing to take it. When that extra encouragement is in place and fathers actually use family leave, research shows they become much more active caregivers and more equally share responsibilities throughout the life of the child. This is more than good for child development — it’s a win for gender equality.

In Norway, for instance, which is rated by the United Nations as one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, parents may take 49 weeks of paid leave at 100 percent pay, or 59 weeks of leave at 80 percent pay. But for years, only mothers took leave. Barely 2 percent or 3 percent of fathers took any paid leave.

So in 1993, the government introduced a “father quota” of 10 weeks: The father had to use his time, or the family lost it. Now, about 90 percent of fathers who have a right to the quota actually use it. “We have experienced a distinct change in men’s attitudes,” said Solveig Horne, Norway’s minister of children, equality and social inclusion. “Now, it’s as common to see fathers with their baby strollers as mothers.” Nudges for men in other countries such as Portugal, Italy, Germany and Japan include giving families bonuses that extend the total length of paid parental leave if both parents share it.

Third? Make leave useful for all, regardless of income level.

In the District of Columbia, one of about 20 state and local jurisdictions that have been exploring paid leave programs, a coalition of advocates, businesses and supporters are pushing for 12 to 16 weeks of job-protected paid leave for men and women. But given the district’s unique population, where an estimated 25 percent of the population is low-income, organizers have learned from states’ mistakes.

California, the first state to pass a paid leave law in 2002, initially replaced only 55 percent of worker wages on paid leave. “We learned from California that people who only get paid minimum wage can’t live on 55 percent of that low pay,” said Jacob Feinspan, executive director of Jews United for Justice, one of the backers of D.C.’s paid leave bill. Middle-class workers in California are three times more likely to even know about the paid leave program, research found, and the highest paid workers in the state disproportionately take more leave, while the lowest paid workers take less.

“Workers who are paid low wages, making barely enough to get by, were only taking leave when they were so sick or injured that they couldn’t get out of bed,” Feinspan said. “Otherwise, they were getting back to work fast — even when they really shouldn’t.”

Today, the D.C. proposal envisions replacing 90 percent of low-wage workers’ income while on leave, a share that decreases as worker income goes up, to a cap of $1,500 a week. California recently amended its law and now replaces 60 to 70 percent of low-wage workers’ income on leave. The World Bank reports that the average wage replacement rate around the globe is 90 percent.


While the United States may be poised to take advantage of these lessons learned, it’s important to remember that, right now, only 13 percent of the civilian workforce has access to any kind of paid family leave — a harsh fact that often astounds those in other countries.

Anu Madgavkar, a partner with the McKinsey Global Institute who has studied the economic impact of boosting gender parity, found that relatively small improvements to encourage women’s labor force participation, such as paid family leave, could add $2 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product by 2025. She finds the United States’ lack of paid leave puzzling: “It really points to the concept of poverty of time, which has probably squeezed the soul out of many, many working women.”

And men. And families. And businesses, communities, economies and our entire nation.

It’s time to learn our lessons.

Explore these other perspectives: