Pop quiz: what do the United States, Papua New Guinea, Liberia, and Swaziland have in common? Answer: they are the only four members of the United Nations that do not legally require employers to guarantee paid maternity leave.
I am a high school student in New York City and I first discovered this issue last year when my teacher took leave to give birth to her daughter, then returned to school four weeks later. I was shocked. The US Department of Health and Human Services cites the average childbirth recovery time at six to eight weeks. Returning to work after four weeks seemed to me difficult, if not dangerous. I inquired into the issue and learned that under federal law -- the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act -- employers with more than 100 employees are required to grant 12 weeks of unpaid leave to all workers who have been employed for a minimum of 1,250 hours over a one-year period. The legislative requirements do not mandate compensation for new mothers.
Without paid leave, women like my teacher often find they cannot afford to take the full 12 weeks. Many worry, too, that the absence will hurt their careers. "What's happening now is women are afraid to take their maternity leave, they're afraid of not being in the office immediately after having a child, it seems," Carol Evans, executive director of Working Mother Media, told ABC News. "They should be doing the opposite of being afraid. They should be fighting this fear."
I spoke to school administrators, who told me they are deeply torn over the issue. "My heart aches when I look at our pregnant young women, facing for the first time the need to spend time with their baby and the desire to build a career outside the home," a school administrator told me.
Unfortunately, their choices are not easy. With a staff of 200, compensating family leave would put a strain on the budget and would mean leaching funds from other school programs. "It's a really tough balancing act," one administrator said. "Do we cut scholarships and programs for students so that we can pay for maternity and paternity leaves? So far the school has said no."
The same dilemma faces every institution and company, I learned; given all their competing demands and tradeoffs, the most immediate priorities come first, and these usually don't include new mothers. Without federal legislation at their back, managers have a hard time justifying the costs of paid parental leave to their boards. The result is that most American workplaces do not provide it. According to a 2010 U.S. Department of Labor report, only 10 percent of private sector employees have access to paid family leave, most of them in the highest-paid positions. And the number is actually declining -- between 1988 and 2008 there was a drop of 11 percent in the number of companies offering it, according to a study by the Families and Work Institute.
The more I learned about it, the more it troubled me. Today's media declare that women are opting out of high-power careers. The New York Times recently published a profile of educated career women who gave up their work to become full-time mothers, declaring that "opting-out" is the latest trend in mothering, a social revolution of sorts. But Catalyst research found that 57 percent of women in senior corporate posts do aspire to be CEOs. Well, if women aren't opting out of high-power positions, why aren't they pursuing those executive spots? Maybe because institutions convey the idea that women have to make choices -- family or career, work or life.
The issues go beyond career advancement. Studies by the World Health Organization have shown that early return to work after childbirth has long-term negative effects on a woman's health. The European Union, meanwhile, has found that these impacts translate into lost productivity in the economy. All 27 E.U. countries now offer at least 14 weeks of paid maternal leave. A 1981 United Nations convention requiring paid maternal leave, without specifying the length, has been signed by 185 nations -- but not the United States.
In 2009, journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn wrote that women's rights are the cause of our generation. "In the 19th century, the paramount moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism. In this century, it is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe," the pair wrote. Yet in the past year, the number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies has dropped from 15 to 12. Sexual harassment of high school aged girls is on the rise.
What's particularly alarming to me as a high school student is that my peers don't seem to notice this trend. I recently took a straw poll and asked a classroom of girls whether they see women as empowered and respected in today's world. 20 girls responded with a resounding "yes!" "We should still keep fighting for gender equality, but today women's rights are really being recognized," my classmate said. Tossing in a reference to the hit Beyoncé song she added, "Today, girls run the world."
This is what my classmates believe. But within five years we will be entering the workforce. Perhaps we will want to have children and we will contend with institutions that do not offer paid maternity leaves. We will have to choose -- do we return to full-time jobs after only one month, still recovering from the turbulence of childbirth? Or do we give up on two more weeks of salary in order to give our bodies a semblance of a healthy recovery time? At that point, let's see if girls will still be singing along to Beyoncé's catchy tunes. Do girls really run the world if institutions and society at large don't value us enough to compensate our maternity leaves?
When I first approached my school administration and investigated the maternity leave policies, they told me, "institutions have to make tough choices." Yes, the choices are tough. But let's make the right ones, so that my classmates and I won't be choosing between work and health five years down the line.