Parental leave: it would have to be perfect

So the NYT asked for questions for the US Labor Dept’s new Chief Economist, Betsey Stevenson. I couldn’t help myself. Here is the Q & A:

What are your thoughts on how to improve parental leave prospects in the United States without causing further gender discrimination in labor markets? I’m assuming here that whatever one might do to encourage parental leave will still not change the fact that it is likely that women will take it up more than men.  –Joshua Gans


OK, as a recent mother, this one strikes close to home.

Remember that sometimes our assumptions about how these things work aren’t right. In the early ‘90s, everyone assumed that the Family and Medical Leave Act would be primarily used for maternity leave, but as Yale’s Christine Jolls has shown, the policy has had major benefits for those with medical conditions that cause them to occasionally miss work.

And why the assumption? What would happen if we passed policies that gave strong incentives for men to take parental leave? Don’t laugh, the Swedes have tried it. And now you see hunky blond Swedish men pushing strollers down the streets while Mom is at work. It’s an intriguing idea and it could decrease gender discrimination.

Regular readers know that I analysed this question and provided an answer a couple of years back but I was curious as to how hard headed someone in Government might be.

Sadly, Dr Stevenson jumped straight to a social as well as an economic ideal. What if the policy gave strong incentives for fathers to take leave so that an employer could not presume on the basis of gender who was likely to take leave? The problem here is that the economics tell us something quite strong: so long as there is a little bias in employers that sets off a cycle whereby we end up with gender discrimination in the labor market and that discrimination would be exacerbated by the usual parental leave policies. For a country such as the US that has nothing in terms of parental leave, assuming some jump to the ideal is surely fanciful. I’d like to believe we could all be like Sweden but the evidence at the moment is Sweden is like Sweden.

The right and more realistic answer is to take gender discrimination as something that will be with us for some time longer, work towards stronger paternal leave incentives as well but use policy instruments that give more decision-rights to employers.

2 thoughts on “Parental leave: it would have to be perfect”

  1. I’ve been telling everyone who will listen that the Libs paid parental (aka maternity) leave scheme is social engineering.
    Get women back in the home with the kids where they belong but cleverly disguise it in a way that it appears to help women.
    Strong language – but look at the economic intensives.  I think it’s what Joshua is saying.


  2. The article on Swedish parental leave is pretty accurate in so much as I remember it from living there. However there is one aspect that puts the nature of parental leave in context: the strong cultural norm is such that a woman is expected to put her child into daycare (“dagis”) and go back to work after a year. It is extremely unusual to hear of full-time, stay-at-home Mums – social engineering of a different sort. (Men share in home/family duties; women share in working, i.e. income-generating, duties.)

    So – yes – Sweden is Sweden when it comes to gender equality.


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