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LAHIRI: Family leave reform key for wage equality

Column: Ethical Questions

Unfortunately, the window of time for having children that is optimal for women biologically and that which is optimal for women practically do not coincide.

Biologically, women have approximately 30 years of reproductive life. They are born with all the eggs they will ever have: These eggs age and degenerate over time, which introduces risks for women who become pregnant later in life. 

Risk of infertility and miscarriage increase with age, as well as genetic risks that can lead to congenital birth defects. Research indicates women who become pregnant after age 40 are at risk of stroke, heart attack and death from cardiovascular disease.

In 2016 birth rates in the U.S. among women aged 30 to 34 were higher than those among women aged 25 to 29 for the first time in 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since 2014, the average age of a woman when she has her first child has risen from 26.3 years to almost 30 years. 

An explanation for the delay in reproduction is that women are discouraged by the professional repercussions of having a child. Becoming pregnant can significantly hinder a woman’s career goals, as restrictive family leave policies make it hard for women to retain their jobs while raising children. 

Though the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires an employer to protect the job of a woman on maternity leave for the same amount of time that is given to those on disability leave, which is usually 12 weeks, it is usually the case that women have difficulty juggling work with raising a child upon return. 

Family leave is considered for fathers who qualify under the FMLA, and some states like California and New Jersey have even passed state laws that guarantee paid leave for mothers and fathers alike. In the past, companies and society have tended to place the onus of raising children upon the mother, so progress like this is a promising way to encourage women to re-enter the workforce with the assurance that their partner can help them raise children without risking their job stability. 

But, the U.S. as a whole is still far behind other developed nations in regard to family leave policies. Out of 41 developed countries, the U.S. is the only country that does not mandate paid family leave, according to Pew Research Center data.

This is striking in the face of research which shows “paid leave increases the likelihood that workers will return to work after childbirth, improves employee morale, has no or positive effects on workplace productivity, reduces costs to employers through improved employee retention, and improves family incomes.” In contrast to the U.S., most developed countries pay new mothers at least half of their previous salary during leave, and the average maternity leave granted to mothers among 42 developed countries is 18 weeks. 

As a consequence of no federally mandated paid family leave, raising children is exponentially more difficult for new mothers who lack the financial resources to be able to forego an income for a period of time. Following this logic, women might continue to work through the ages during which it would be biologically optimal for them to become pregnant in order to be able to remain afloat when they do decide to have children. 

While in vitro fertilization (IVF) is an option for women who decide to conceive later in life and encounter difficulties in doing so naturally due to their age, it is notoriously expensive. One cycle of IVF treatment can cost more than $15,000, and it is not guaranteed that the procedure will lead to pregnancy. For many mothers, this is too expensive to be a viable option. 

“Women’s economic empowerment boosts productivity, increases economic diversification and income equality in addition to other positive development outcomes," according to the United Nations (UN).

It would be in our country's best interest to reform its federal policy on family leave, in the hopes that women — and specifically women who rely on a stable income in order to survive — will no longer feel compelled to delay reproduction due to work-related or financial pressures. 

Anuska Lahiri is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science. Her column, “Ethical Questions,” runs on alternate Mondays.


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