Prince William’s bold push for workplace equality

Posted Saturday, Jul. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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On the face of it, Prince William’s decision to take two weeks of job-protected, paid statutory paternity leave is absurd.

The heir to the British throne can live without the approximately $206 a week in taxpayer funds that men in Britain are entitled to receive if they take time off to welcome a baby.

But as a symbolic gesture, the prince’s choice is, as the Brits would say, brilliant. In William’s subtle, necessarily apolitical, good-guy way, he has issued the boldest possible statement of support for true workplace equality between men and women.

It’s a message that we in the United States need to hear if we’re ever going to get past the place where women have been mired for the past decade.

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t offer new mothers any job-protected, paid maternity leave; the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave; the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee its workers any paid vacation time; and one of the only industrialized nations with no regulations to support flexible options for caretakers.

But the U.S. is just like the rest of the world in that whatever leave or flexibility options exist are primarily used by women and are perceived as tools to allow them to meet the unique demands of working motherhood.

Private-sector work-life policies in the U.S. aren’t just overwhelmingly used by women; they are also advocated for and administered by women, and primarily pitched to female job candidates as a woman-friendly selling point.

But if 31 percent of “highly qualified” American professional women are now leaving their jobs for extended periods to be with their kids, and 66 percent are downgrading their formerly top-flight careers to low-status, low-influence, part-time or “flex time” work, as economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett has found, that means a lot of valuable human capital is being lost.

This “leaky pipeline” phenomenon has been much discussed this year with Facebook Inc. chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s mega-hit book, Lean In.

The seemingly obvious fixes — more and better policies aimed at helping women balance work and family — have been extremely disappointing so far in helping them advance and truly rise as far as their ambitions and talents might take them.

Over the long term, mothers take almost four times as much time off from work as dads do, and they overwhelmingly work in low-paid, often part-time, public-sector jobs.

In fact, as leave and flexibility policies are currently conceived and carried out, Robin Ely, an organizational-behavior expert at Harvard Business School, has argued, they have often had the perverse effect of reinforcing the status quo.

By focusing on women’s difficulties with “balance” and “conflicts” over motherhood, they have conveniently avoided the larger issues — which, in the U.S., Ely argues, chiefly turn around the pervasive macho culture of overwork that plagues men and women alike.

Focusing on women’s struggles with work-family balance is a “social defense,” Ely says: a way of fixating on a safe thought (women want to be with their children) and keeping at bay a much more threatening thought (the way we work now is pathological).

It also precludes workplace changes that would most effectively enhance women’s advancement — notably, a rethinking of excessive hours and unrealistic productivity expectations that make living a balanced life impossible for everyone.

The British government introduced a new system of regulations last fall that intend, starting in 2015, to entitle mothers and fathers to fully share a year’s worth of leave after the birth of a child, dividing the time in whatever way they see fit.

Progress will be slow. Employment Relations and Consumer Minister Jo Swinson said the government expects only 8 percent of couples to take advantage of the new gender-neutral leave possibilities.

Let’s hope that William’s gesture of leaning into fatherhood provides greater inspiration.

Judith Warner is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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