There’s an article in this morning’s New York Times that summarizes some recent research on the effects that maternity leaves, paid and unpaid, have on women’s subsequent work—whether they return to the (paid) labor force, and what the long term effects are for their advancement in career ladders. It’s obvious, for starters, that economics can go only so far in overcoming deeply-seated cultural patterns. If women are believed to be responsible for raising children, there can be no magic remedy for the inequalities this implies for other aspects of life.
That said, here are two thoughts. First, from a social equality point of view, as well as an economic one, leaves should be replaced by subsidized or publicly-funded childcare as soon as it’s practicable—the French model. It works in France and should be extended everywhere.
Second, even if cultural norms result in women, rather than men, doing most of the parental leaving in the months after a new child is born, there is no reason why this time must be dead space from a career development perspective. Here there is a role for public subsidy or provision of at-home education and training programs. Having a child can be an opportunity to take a break from the day-to-day routine of work and retool in areas that can boost economic opportunities after the leave is over. There has been experimentation with this approach in Germany, where it is regarded as a promising tweak to maternity policy. I couldn’t find a reference to link to; perhaps a reader out there can help.