Fixing Parental Leave in the United States: A Look at How to Get It Right for Moms and Dads

Gayle Kaufman Prof. Sociology

Gayle Kaufman, Nancy and Erwin Maddrey Professor of Sociology and Gender & Sexuality Studies

The conversation about parental leave in the United States is shifting quickly. With leave for new mothers widely available, more fathers are seeking to spend time with their children as well. Paternity leave—once unthinkable among working males—is now a premium benefit offered by a growing number of corporations.  

But despite the surging popularity of leave for both parents, the United States remains far behind the rest of the world in its policies. As comparison, in the last few months the United States passed 12 weeks of paid parental leave for federal employees; Finland, meanwhile, announced a new gender-balanced policy that gives both parents seven—yes, seven—months of paid leave.

Gayle Kaufman, Nancy and Erwin Maddrey Professor of Sociology and Gender & Sexuality Studies, recently published Fixing Parental Leave: The Six Month Solution, a study of leave policies in the United States, the United Kingdom and Sweden.

Kaufman shares her insights on the shifting dialogue in the United States and offers a proposal for the ideal parental leave policy.

What is the status of paid parental leave in the United States right now?

The United States still has no national policy that offers paid parental leave. Five states—California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York and Washington—offer paid family leave while three other states—Massachusetts (2021), Connecticut (2022) and Oregon (2023)—and Washington, D.C. (July 2020) are set to offer these benefits in the next few years.

Parental leave is broadly popular across party lines. But it is not necessarily a voting issue, right?

That may be because the current proposals are underwhelming. The FAMILY Act—the most viable leave bill at the moment—calls for 12 weeks of paid leave for both parents. It is basically the same as the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but paid.

It’s an improvement, but 12 weeks paid leave is just not enough time.

How long should leave be?

Six months per parent is the sweet spot. At that length, employment outcomes for women are good. Six months is also just right to protect women from experiencing postpartum depression. Longer periods of leave show diminishing returns. There is such a thing as too much leave.

Where is family leave done right?

Sweden is a real leader in both policy and cultural acceptance.

Sweden was the first country with parental leave; they have had it since 1974. Today, Swedish families get 16 months of parental leave. Parents can share that time as they see fit, but three months are reserved for each parent. That time is non-transferable. This was an intentional choice, designed to incentivize paternity leave. And it’s worked.

Almost all Swedish fathers take those three months of leave. The conversation around paternity leave is almost the exact opposite of here—it’s considered odd when Swedish men don’t take their full leave.

Now, the Swedish system is not perfect. If the goal of their policy is to promote gender equality, it’s not there yet. Mothers still take more leave.

What should the goals of an enlightened, effective policy be?

The goals have changed. The original leave policies focused on women’s employment. Governments wanted to protect professional women of child-bearing age to address a fertility decline.

Now, the policies take a more holistic view of parenthood. It’s not about just fitting women into a male workplace. Today, maternity leave is a given in other countries. Paternity leave is the new point of emphasis.

And that’s because children benefit from involved fathers. When a father is around, we see improved outcomes across the board in their children. We see better child health and development and even better educational outcomes. And it also boosts the outcomes for female partners. Mothers with active partners do better in the labor force.

One added benefit of a gender-balanced policy is that it lowers discrimination against child-bearing-age women. If both mothers and fathers are going to take leave when they have children, women generally are less likely to face discrimination in hiring decisions.

So, why doesn’t the United States have a better leave policy?

The major obstacle is the cost—or, rather, the perception of cost.

The costs of generous family leave policies are reasonable. Some states have passed paid leave policies with a very small payroll tax increase that is shared by the employer and the employee and/or using an existing temporary disability insurance program.


  • February 21, 2020