Maternity Leave – Ethics vs. Economics

Posted by in Musings

This past month, my coworkers and I rejoiced as a fellow lab member celebrated the birth of their second child.  In addition to the joy of welcoming a new member into the family, she also had the luxury of taking maternity leave for the next 3 months.  First I selfishly thought, “man I would love to take some mandatory leave right now,” but that childish thought evolved into the social and cultural implications of maternity/paternity leave.  I started to realize how the concept of maternity/paternity leave finds itself at the crossroads between ethics and economics, and it is interesting to see how this manifests itself differently throughout different countries.


I use the term “Ethics” loosely to refer the inherent understanding that a mother needs to spend time with the newborn child.  Anyone one with common sense understands a mother needs to be home, especially in the beginning post birth, to care for the child.  This isn’t simply for the mental health of both the mother and child, but also we recognize the importance of the child’s development.  The goal is the overall health of the family.  It is this basic understanding of basic human requirements that explains why almost every country in the world has implemented laws to enforce maternity leave.  The Full List can be found here. Additionally, if you would like to see a nice visual of the distribution of maternity/paternity leave laws around the world, check out this detailed world map.

Yet what about paternity leave?  Obviously from a developmental standpoint, it’s not as necessary.  However there are other considerations that need to be examined.  For example, we have reached an era of equality that it is highly possible that the mother is the primary source of income within the household.  Wouldn’t it be prudent that there were options available to allow her to return to work so that the father can take over child-rearing responsibilities?  Certain countries, such as Sweden, have paternity leaves that are equally beneficial as maternity leaves.  (Granted this is the result of the high percentage of taxes citizens pay, it is still interesting enough to investigate.)


This is a nice segway to my second topic: Economics.  From a business point of view, maternity leave is expensive.  If you revisit the Full List of maternity leave options around the world, you will notice that compensation toward the mother are generally high–with most countries requiring 100% of wages.  It is understandable why legal action is required to enforce maternity leave, otherwise businesses would cut back benefits towards families to minimize expenditures.

Yet despite jduicial intervention, some level of discrimination still does arise against mothers, or soon-to-be mothers.  In her PhD dissertation, Tamar Kricheli-Katz looks at “The Cost of Choosing Motherhood,” delves into this notion.  Not only does she verify previous data that demonstrates women without children make on average 5% higher than equally qualified mothers, she also looks at discrimination towards hiring and promoting women.  She focuses on the social perception of childbirth and the repercussions that result from of our initial beliefs.  Kricheli-Katz states that often we view motherhood as a choice women make, and this subtle distinction could have profound implications on discrimination toward women.  To test her theory, she “mapped the percentages of childless women, pro-choice abortion policies and attitudes, and numbers of abortions per capita by state to measure the relative perception of motherhood as a choice in each state [from collected Census data].”  As predicted, “the motherhood wage penalty tends to be higher in states with stronger indicators of motherhood as a choice.”  Her work seems to confirm that even our perception of having children, whether it’s a choice or basic part of life, can have an impact on behavior towards maternity leave.  Very interesting.


As with any similar social situation, a balance needs to be struck.  We need to account for the cost and benefits properly to allot ample time for parents to take leave while not putting too much of a burden on the companies required to compensate their employers.  So rest assured, if and when you do decide to have children, you can be certain that you’ll have enough time to spend with what is most important….and get paid for it.