Can Family-Friendly Work Policies Backfire?

FMLAClaire Cain Miller, contributor to the New York Times, posted an article this week exploring how family friendly workplace policies can sometimes hurt workers.

She cites cases in countries like Chile, where one result of legal requirements to provide working mothers with childcare is that women are paid less. Or Spain, where measures offering parents of young children the right to part-time work has led to a decline in secure, full-time positions for all women — even employees without children. In other European countries boasting generous maternity leave, women are less likely than men to become managers or gain high-powered positions at work.

Miller concedes that family-friendly policies assist parents in balancing work and domestic responsibilities, and help women with children remain in the work force at all. Yet she is also concerned about their unintended consequences.

For examples, the policies might dissuade employers from offering a job to a woman in the first place, because of concerns that she will leave for long periods or use expensive benefits. “For employers, it becomes much easier to justify discrimination,” said Sarah Jane Glynn, director of women’s economic policy at the Center for American Progress.

Unlike many countries, the United States has few federal policies for working parents. One exception is the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which guarantees workers at companies of a certain size with 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

Women in the U.S. are 5% more likely to remain employed, yet the are 8% less likely to be promoted than they were before these laws went into effect, according to a new study by Mallika Thomas, assistant professor of economics at Cornell University. She links this decline to the fact that companies that don’t take a chance on investing in the careers of women who might leave. “The problem ends up being that all women, even those who do not anticipate having children or cutting back in hours, may be penalized,” she said.

As we wrestle with the problem of making the system more generous here in the U.S., Miller urges us to be aware of lessons from overseas. The child-care law in Chile (which has been on the books since 2009), was envisioned as a way of boosting the percentage of women who work, which is below 50% — one of the lowest rates in Latin America. It requires that companies with 20+ female workers provide and pay for child care for children under 2, in a convenient location where the women can drop in to feed them if need be.

Such an arrangement seems fabulously progressive, easing the transition back to work and supporting a children’s development, according to María Prada, an economist at the Inter-American Development Bank and lead author of a new study on the effects of the law. Yet with it, women’s starting salaries have declined by between 9% and 20%. Researchers compared pay at the same companies before and after they were big enough to be forced to comply with the law. (Another approach by companies, especially smaller ones, has been simply not to comply with the law.)

“That was thought to be a provision to help them participate in the labor force and achieve more work-family balance, and it’s doing the opposite,” said Ms. Prada, whose study was published last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Spain passed a law in 1999 giving workers with children younger than 7 the right to ask for reduced hours without fear of being laid off. Those who took advantage of it were nearly all women.

Over the next decade, companies were 6 percent less likely to hire women of childbearing age compared with men, 37 percent less likely to promote them and 45 percent more likely to dismiss them, according to a study led by Daniel Fernández-Kranz, an economist at IE Business School in Madrid. The probability of women of childbearing age not being employed climbed 20 percent. Another result: Women were more likely to be in less stable, short-term contract jobs, which are not required to provide such benefits.

“One of the unintended consequences of the law has been to push women into the lower segment of the labor market with bad-quality, unprotected jobs where their rights cannot be enforced,” he said.

These findings are consistent with previous research by Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, economists at Cornell. In a study of 22 countries, they found that generous family-friendly policies like long maternity leaves and part-time work protections in Europe made it possible for more women to work — but that they were more likely to be in dead-end jobs and less likely to be managers.

There is no simple way to prevent family-friendly policies from backfiring, researchers say. One idea is to make sure that employers do not have to finance them. As in Chile, they will often pass the burden to employees. The three American states — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — that offer paid family leave finance it through employee payroll taxes, for example.

Another suggestion is to make sure policies are generous but not too generous. Some say that more than three months of maternity leave is helpful, but that more than nine months begins to hurt women’s career prospects.

Perhaps the most successful way to devise policies that help working families but avoid unintended consequences, people who study the issue say, is to make them gender neutral. In places like Sweden and Quebec, for instance, parental leave policies encourage both men and women to take time off for a new baby.

“It has to become something that humans do,” Ms. Glynn, from the Center for American Progress, said, “as opposed to something that women do.

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Emery Reddy