Cynthia M. Allen

Paid parental leave counterproductive for women

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday in Las Vegas.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday in Las Vegas. The Associated Press

In 2013, the University of Vermont banned the sale of bottled water on campus.

The environmentally conscious school was seeking to reduce the number of single-use bottles in its waste stream. It installed or updated drinking fountains and bottle-filler stations around campus, distributed hundreds of reusable containers and encouraged students to carry them around.

The goal was noble, the expectations high.

But the results were not at all what the administration intended.

A study by a UVM nutrition professor found students were not using or purchasing fewer single-use bottles; indeed, since the policy change the school’s plastic bottle footprint had increased.

To top it off, students were instead purchasing sugary and unhealthy drinks and consuming a great deal more of them.

The failed UVM bottle ban illustrates a classic case of unintended consequences. A policy is proposed with a lofty objective in mind, but upon implementation, an entirely different result occurs.

It’s a case study that presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders — who represents Vermont — might want to consider.

During Tuesday night’s Democrat presidential primary debate, the self-proclaimed socialist proclaimed the U.S. needs medical and family paid leave “like every other country on Earth.”

He continued, “I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

It’s true the U.S. represents the minority when it comes to family leave policies. It’s true also that the Nordic nations are among the most generous.

Manhattan Institute scholar Kay Hymowitz looked at leave policies in all three nations: Denmark gives mothers a full year of leave at full pay; Sweden allows 480 days of leave at roughly 80 percent of a full-time salary; and Norway offers up to 47 weeks off.

When compared to the U.S., northern Europe seems like a feminist utopia.

Studies show such laws help bring women back into the workforce. They also provide mothers and children bonding time that research suggests is crucial for healthy childhood development.

But the benefits seem to stop there.

As with the UVM bottle ban, a cascade of unintended consequences make such policies not merely less than ideal but maybe even harmful.

Cornell University economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn looked at 22 countries and confirmed that the expansion of family-friendly policies, including parental leave and part-time work entitlements, has increased female workforce participation.

But they found that such policies “also appear to encourage part-time work and employment in lower-level positions,” not to mention lower wages and less advancement for women.

In fact, Blau and Kahn concluded that U.S. women — relatively few of whom enjoy paid parental leave — “are more likely than women in other countries to have full-time jobs and to work as managers or professionals.”

Generous leave policies may handicap working women, decreasing their attachment to the workplace and thus opportunities for promotion as well as income potential.

You might even say they increase workplace inequality.

As Hymowitz puts it, these laws “have a tendency to harden a country’s glass ceiling.”

And it’s not only Europe where such “women-centered” policies are eroding female careers.

In Chile, the government sought to increase female participation in the workforce by altering the labor code to require companies with 20 or more female employees to provide and pay for child care at a nearby location.

The law also significantly increased the cost of hiring female employees.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise when three economists found the law resulted in a decline in women’s starting salaries of between 9 percent and 20 percent.

There are good reasons for companies to consider expanding parental leave or implementing more family-friendly policies on their own.

But holding up the mandatory, one-size-fits-all policies of Scandinavia as beacons of equality and fairness ignores the unforeseen consequences such policies often create.

Whether banning bottles on campus or mandating generous paid parental leave, all policies that create benefits have costs, and it doesn’t appear that the costs of such policies mean much to Sanders.

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