Tuesday, April 12 is Equal Pay Day, an occasion marked by the American Association of University Women to observe the day when the average women's earnings would equal that of men's from the prior year. There are several factors underlying the gender wage gap, each of which needs to be identified and addressed in order to close the gap. One significant factor of the wage gap is the lack of paid maternity leave new moms confront in the United States.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only about 13 percent of workers in the United States have access to paid family leave, which includes time off after the birth of a child. The report also showed that women who have access to paid leave tend to be wealthier than those without such access. Paid leave is not federally mandated, so it's been left up to individual states and companies to initiate programs at their own will. Clearly, many have not done so. The United States is the only country with an advanced economy that doesn't require paid family leave.
How does this impact the gender wage gap? There are a few ways. The most obvious is the direct loss of wages incurred for taking time off work, which is generally essential both for physical recovery and for caring for and bonding with a newborn, when a woman doesn't have access to paid leave. Taking six to 12 weeks off from work with no pay makes a dent in the earnings of new mothers.
But there are longer-term consequences for lack of access to paid maternity leave. For women who don't take much time off, their own health and that of their babies may suffer, leading to reduced ability to work steadily going forward. A Rutgers study found that women who don't take leave after childbirth are far less likely to be working nine to 12 months following childbirth. Lack of access to paid leave makes taking time off a financial impossibility for some new moms.
A Department of Labor report showed that women who take paid leave also fare better than those who take unpaid leave, likely due to the ability to take the time they need rather than rush back to work. For women pressured to get back to work, the demands of the job and of motherhood may be too much to handle, leading them to exit the work force.
Just as paid leave makes it more likely that women will remain in the work force, a lack of access to paid leave makes it more likely that women will experience gaps in their work histories. Reduced work experience increases the likelihood that, upon returning to work, women will start with lower wages than they would if they had remained employed. The Rutgers study noted that women who take paid leave are 54 percent more likely to experience an increase in their wages a year after childbirth.
While we wait for a federal mandate on paid leave — something that may well happen if we have a Democratic president in 2017 — we can commemorate 2016's Equal Pay Day by voicing our support for the many pro-paid-leave bills up for debate in several states. Achieving equal pay will require a number of efforts on different fronts, and we can't ignore the importance of paid family leave.