I don’t think Austrian artist Gustav Klimt was thinking about the economy when he painted this serene picture of a mother and child.
He was capturing the beauty of motherhood and familial relationships. But do mothers have time to nurture this special relationship? Financial pressures and gender roles create attitudes and social behaviors that influence our family values. So when motherhood becomes a financial burden or a woman’s gender prevents her from contributing equally in the workforce, she is shortchanged. However, the problem is much larger. Wasted skills, lost intellectual capital and reduced participation in the workforce affect a country’s bottom line. Gender equality makes economic sense and championing family values creates global competitive advantages.
Snapshot of Canadian versus American Maternity Values
It’s no secret the United States continues seriously struggles with gender equality. We are in crisis mode and it shows in the workforce. Workplace demands are discriminatory because women struggle without systemic support systems vital for raising a healthy family. For example, long-term studies prove that investing in women and maternity leave lowers infant mortality. It is an investment in a country’s economics. Women are more likely to breastfeed and the health benefits of this include a reduced risk of infectious diseases and better cognitive outcomes for the child.
Women who are given time to nurture their children and recover from childbirth establish a stronger relationship with their baby. Men play an equally important role in nurturing children and the family. They offer additional support and should also have the time to bond with the baby. Employers and governments need to provide networks that lay a strong foundation for future generation of workers. The economics are irrefutable: maternity and paternity leaves are a short-term investment that pays long term dividends.
But look at what’s happened in America. Women are waiting longer to have children because having a baby is a pay cut with further potential downside risks. Short maternity leaves mean higher childcare costs for families. Inflexible work environments force women to sacrifice job promotions, salary increases and a lost career track. An entire segment of a country’s qualified workforce – women – is grossly impacted and competitive advantages are lost.
A 2017 Bloomberg Report shows the impact of a flat labor force in America. Progress has stalled over the last four decades since the late 80’s. On average, women in their twenties are waiting four more years longer to have children (up from 22 years to 26 years). Overall workforce participation starts to drop when women are in their 30’s and 40’s. It increases when they try to return in their 50’s and 60’s. I can’t tell you how many women I know that fall into this middle gap. They have experience and intellectual capital but their job prospects are pretty sparse. There is no precedent for the increased number of women forgoing their golden years and working into their 60’s and 70’s.
The chart below comparing American maternity benefits to Canadian benefits leaves a sour taste. Can you blame women for opting out? As mentioned in Who Decided Pregnancy Was a Disability?, the United States maternity leave is one of the lowest in the world, ranking alongside New Guinea and some of the South Pacific Islands. At the bottom of more than 193 other countries around the world, America’s family values are shockingly low. It also calls into question its status as a so-called “developed country.”
Maternity Leave: Best and Worst Countries
This is the perfect time to introduce Malcolm Gladwell and his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell examines the performance of people in various sports, academia, and business fields, identifying why they are successful. Time and again, the greatest common indicators are culture and environment. It’s not a stretch to see that these same success factors also apply to how countries perform when it comes to championing women.
While you can’t actually see the culture of countries in the chart below, the environmental support for motherhood is apparent. And, don’t go jumping up and down! There is NO national legislation that protects maternity leave in the United States. The chart is a best case scenario for companies that choose to provide maternity leave. While more companies are seeing it as a competitive advantage in the marketplace, smaller companies with less than 75 employees don’t need to offer anything. This is significant point because small business is the backbone of America with just under half of the U.S. gross domestic product coming from this segment.
Here is what you can’t see in the chart that’s worth sharing. Sweden provides 16-month parental leaves that can be shared between two parents! Australia provides 33 weeks for each parent, and then another 33 weeks to be split by them in whatever way they choose. I also noticed the most competitive countries have paid paternity leave for dads. Too many countries don’t include dads in the economics of the family. Why couldn’t this picture by American painter Mary Cassatt show a father hugging a daughter? This helps to explain why European women are more likely to work, particularly in countries like the U.K. and France because paternity leave is supported.
How to Get to Economic Growth
So where do we go from here? A United Nations Report, Leave No One Behind: A Call to Action for Gender Equality and Economic Empowerment, found that countries who remove discriminatory laws and accelerate women’s economic empowerment realize greater sustained economic growth. There are dozens of charts and reports that correlate gender equality to faster economic growth, higher income per capita and improved human development. These gains are even greater in countries like Germany, Korea, Italy and Singapore where women’s participation rates are low. In more developed countries like England, New Zealand and Latin American countries, improved maternity leaves helped create better income distribution while reducing poverty rates.
In the UN Report, more than 943 gender-differentiated laws documented in over 170 economies help to identify opportunities for economic improvements and competitiveness. Two thoughts on this: that’s a lot of gender bias embedded in our culture and environment, and why aren’t we listening to all this great advice! Call me crazy but there’s some serious high level thinking that went into the UN Report.
Some of the authors include people like Mr. Jim Yong Kim (President of the World Bank), Ms. Christine Legarde (Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund), Ms. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women) and Mr. Michael Spence (Economist and recipient of the 2001 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences).
Without watering the report down too much, the UN Report says countries must do these things to increase their competitive advantage:
- Economies need to harness women in the workforce to grow (i.e. U.S. could grow the economy by 5% if they did this according to Bloomberg’s Report);
- Women need to have babies to sustain workforce’s and grow economies;
- Women need to be healthy enough to remain in the workforce and given time to emotionally bond and physically heal from childbirth;
- Women need support systems to return to work and to be productive. This means childcare, positive role models to change existing discriminatory norms and guaranteed legal protections;
- Countries need to recognize and reduce unpaid work in the home by encouraging and valuing paternity leaves; and…
- Women need a collective stronger voice that will ensure their visibility and representation in the government policy making and improved public sector practices.
The big question now is what businesses and countries will do with this knowledge.
I wonder if we need a fresh approach. Maybe we should be fighting for paternity leave and soliciting the assistance of men. This would create greater overall support for parental leave and securing equal rights. If we focus instead on parental leave – like many advances countries already do – we’ll bring a refreshingly twenty-first century way to approach gender equality!
At any rate, we need to build a more unified case for gender equality and those qualities that help mothers to bond with their children. When we champion the economics of motherhood the art of the family flourishes, alongside our shared humanity.