The truth is, however, that in the United States bearing a child comes at a high price for many women. Despite having one of the world's most advanced economies, the United States lags far behind other countries in its policies for expectant mothers. In addition to being the only highly competitive country where mothers are not guaranteed paid leave, it sits in stark contrast to countries such as Cuba and Mongolia that offer expectant mothers one year or more of paid leave.
Countries finance paid-maternal-leave policies in a variety of ways. Some require that the employer finance the leave; in others, the money comes from public funds. For low-income residents or those who work in the informal sector, an increasing number of governments are providing maternity cash benefits, according to the International Labor Organization, a U.N.-affiliated agency.
The graphic above highlights just how poorly the U.S. compares with the rest of the world. It shows that this is the only advanced economy that does not mandate paid leave for mothers at the federal level.
From Gambia to Bangladesh, a majority of low- and middle-income countries offer some form of paid leave to mothers. The ILO recommends women be guaranteed at least 14 weeks of paid maternal leave. Some advanced economies, such as Norway, Canada and Sweden, provide at least 26 weeks of paid leave.
Five low-unemployment countries (South Korea, Japan, Czech Republic, Austria and Denmark) offer mothers 52 weeks or more of paid leave. They're among 36 countries in total that, according to our data, provide the most generous paid leave for women. A majority of those countries — 32, to be exact — are in Europe. Russia offers women 140 days of paid maternity leave at 100 percent of their salary.
Experts say offering paid maternity leave can actually boost economic growth. Jody Heymann, founding director of the WORLD Policy Analysis Center and dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, says that European countries view paid leave for mothers as an investment in their economy. "Most countries have recognized that this is critical to the success of their economy," she said. "Countries can either work with half of their workforce or compete with their full workforce, which requires paid maternity leave."
Roger-Mark De Souza, who leads programs on reproductive and maternal health at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank, says part of the reason for Europe’s history of offering paid maternal leave dates back to World War II. Because of mass casualties and ruined infrastructure, there was a need to both integrate women into the workforce and also encourage families to have children. As a result, offering paid maternal leave policies created job security for mothers, thereby promoting economic growth, according to a 2014 study conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Because current U.S. policy doesn't mandate paid maternity leave, many women feel they have to choose between working and raising a family. This gender inequity undermines their prospects of equal opportunity at work — and, experts say, it disproportionately affects women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. A 2012 study conducted by the Department of Labor found that, of the workers it polled, 23 percent of women who had left work to care for an infant took less than two weeks off, increasing health risks for both mothers and children.
The situation does seem to be improving for women around the world.
As the chart below shows, the quality of maternal leave has improved in 56 countries. More governments are starting to either offer paid maternal leave or increase it; at least 190 countries mandate some type of paid leave for mothers of infants.
Heymann says there is also reason to believe that the United States has momentum to catch up. "We are seeing paid family leave pass in different forms in cities and states across the country," she said. She added that with tech companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Google at the forefront of providing paid-maternal-leave packages to their employers, U.S. employers are demonstrating that competitive benefits do not compromise employee performance.