by Patrick Appel

Rebecca Ray, Research Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, answers my question via e-mail:

I'm writing to pass on a new report my colleagues and I wrote on the subject: "Who Cares? Assessing generosity and gender equality in parental leave policy designs in 21 countries," in the July edition of the Journal of European Social Policy.

We specifically examine how a generously-designed parental leave policy is not necessarily a gender-equal policy, and vice versa.  For example, Germany ranks second-highest in generosity to new mothers, but its position falls to 10th on the gender equality of its policies.

While a long maternity leave can be supportive of new mothers, it can also cement the traditional breadwinner / caretaker family roles instead of dual-earner / dual-carer roles.

The report is behind a paywall, although an earlier, free version of the paper can be accessed here.

A professor of human resources mounts a more general defense of maternity leave (not specific to Germany):

I thought I'd send you some of the research on this:

Parental leave is associated with increases in women's employment, but with reductions in their relative wages at extended durations (Ruhm, 1998, Quarterly Jnl of Eco.).

Rönsen and Sundström (1996) Journal of Population Economics (study in Scandinavia). One important finding is that the right to paid maternity leave with job security greatly speeds up the return to work.

Jane Waldfogel, Yoshio Higuchi and Masahiro Abe (1998) Journal of Population Economics (study in US, Japan and Britain). We find that family leave coverage increases the likelihood that a woman will return to her employer after childbirth in all three countries, with a particularly marked effect in Japan. This result suggests that the recent expansions in family leave coverage in the sample countries are likely to lead to increased employment of women after childbirth.

In other words, women are not "loathe" to return to the workforce after lengthy maternity leaves. They're MORE likely to. There's a sense of reciprocity for the opportunity--not to mention the fact that most people (men and women) prefer working to not working. Most women do not aspire nor want to be stay-at-home mothers for 10+ years. Maybe until the child goes to preschool, but that's mostly the end of it (on average, anyhow).

I think the preconceptions are wrong here. Not to mention the idea that employers wouldn't hire qualified women because they might potentially get pregnant is precisely the reason we have laws preventing such discrimination (and other countries, too). You can't "punish" someone based on what you think they might do. This isn't "Minority Report." Plus, wouldn't you rather have an employee who is excellent for an indeterminate amount of time (i.e., a woman who may take an extended maternity leave) than an employee who is less excellent for an indeterminate amount of time (i.e., a less qualified man who will definitely not get pregnant but may leave for any other myriad reasons).

The logic just isn't there. Anecdotal and research evidence both suggest that companies are trying to find ways to keep qualified women around after childbirth, not avoid them altogether.

A reader in Germany:

You ask about data on German maternity leave and the career chances of women. My empirical experience after having lived in Germany for 20 years (we came here for my wife's career) is that yes, of course it hurts them. You could look at how Germany is well behind the OECD average on women's salaries or percentage of women in management. But I just look at my circle of friends. Not one woman who has a degree and children is happy or satisfied with her career (or lack thereof).

How did my wife succeed in this climate, even getting promoted immediately after returning from one year's leave? Easy. She worked for an American company.

Another reader with German ties:

I don't have data to crunch on Germany and maternity leave, but I am married to a German woman, and many, many of her friends were essentially forced out of the workforce by the "generous" maternity leave policy. My mother-in-law was a chemist when she had a baby in 1973; when she went back to work, she could have had the "same" job, but had not kept pace with the lab technology and ended up working as a receptionist. Many of my wife's friends had children when they were not long after entry level (25-28 years old), and by the time they come back to the workforce after even 5 years and 2 kids, their peer males, now 30-33 have moved into higher management and there is no way to catch them. There was a times article on this not long back.

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