The United States is a country of many firsts and innovations throughout its history and, because of that, it’s at the top of a lot of lists. The U.S. has the largest economy in the world. Its government has the biggest budget. It has the best universities, the strongest armed forces, and is home to many of the most successful and innovative companies on earth. But, there’s one critical metric where the United States falls dead last: paid parental leave.
A few years ago, the OECD conducted a study of paid leave laws in 41 nations. They came to a shocking conclusion: the United States is the only one that does not guarantee at least some paid leave from their jobs to new parents.
The competition wasn’t even close. The shortest time off guaranteed by any of the other countries was around two months.
And it gets worse. In the U.S., since there’s no minimum legal requirement, it’s up to employers to determine their own policies. Sadly, most companies don’t make the right call, leaving only 13 percent of American private sector employees with access to paid leave. The result? One out of four employed American women head back to work within two weeks of having a baby, according to a 2015 survey.
As a mother, it feels wrong that a country as wealthy and developed as the U.S. could be so far behind on such an important issue. But as a business leader, I can say doesn’t make strategic sense. Providing paid leave isn’t just good for employees — it’s good for companies.
The logic is simple. If you have good employees, you want to keep them. And employees — especially women — are far more likely to stay if they can take paid time off when they become parents. That means you retain talent and save time, effort, and money.
I know from personal experience. When I was the CEO of several companies in Mexico, I kept turnover to a minimum by emphasizing paid leave for new parents. At the time, women in Mexico were able to take 90 days of paid leave: 45 before giving birth and 45 afterwards. My employees were able to spend three months with their newborn, and I paid for the extra 45 days. When they returned, I encouraged flextime and work-from-home schedules. It was a big success: all but one new mother returned to the job. And since new fathers need to spend time with their babies too, I offered two weeks of paternity leave even though the law didn’t require it. Two years after, the Mexican government finally mandated one week of paternity leave. I kept the two weeks.
The costs of not allowing new parents time with their families add up. Women who can’t take paid leave may drop out of the workforce. According to recent research, the likelihood that an American woman will work declines between 28 to 40 percentage points after having a baby relative to similar women who aren’t mothers. In turn, that leads to less money for working families. Lost pay from not being able to take time off costs American working families at least $20.6 billion every year, according to the Center for American Progress.
Even for mothers who do return to work, not enough businesses offer the flex time and remote options that new parents desperately need. This past Mother’s Day, Quartz spoke with new mothers who had recently returned to their jobs. Many had a challenging time. One described her first few weeks back as “an actual waking nightmare.” A young first-time mom said, “I knew I would miss my child but didn’t know it was going to be as difficult as it turned out to be.”
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like this. The private sector shouldn’t wait for the government. If you have the power to change your company’s policies, step up and make your voice heard. Push for paid leave for new mothers and fathers. Argue for more flexibility for remote work. And encourage on-site daycare so parents don’t have to race back at the end of the day.
You’ll be helping far more people than just your fellow employees. When businesses transform their workplace practices, it has a ripple effect throughout society. It’s like dropping a stone in the community pond. Other institutions take note — and they follow suit. Once they do, mothers become more empowered in their business life, both mothers and fathers gain the flexibility to care for and bond with their young children, girls become more inspired in their education, and all women set their sights higher.