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The Benefits to a Paid Family Leave Law That Nobody Is Talking About

02/12/2015 03:02 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015
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This month marks 22 years since the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act. The FMLA was an important first step toward improving the lives of American workers by helping them secure unpaid leave from their jobs for a variety of family issues, while protecting their employment security.

But the FMLA left much to be desired. It's now time to increase our support for working families by implementing legal changes that guarantee paid family leave and other polices that support workers in the challenging task of balancing their employment and family responsibilities.

Such policies could be pivotal in reducing the gender inequalities that still linger at our workplaces and our homes.

The United States remains the only country in the industrialized world that does not legislate any form or length of paid family leave. In an attempt to change this, President Barack Obama recently voiced strong support for policies that would reduce families' out-of-pocket costs for early childhood education and provide paid leave time for caregiving.

Most American couples currently find it tremendously challenging to strike an egalitarian division between work and family responsibilities because they have access to little or no paid leave, hours are long and/or inflexible, and child care is costly.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, only 12 percent of private sector workers have access to paid family leave in the United States. And access to paid leave is not evenly distributed. Whereas 22 percent of individuals with earnings in the top quarter of the population have access to paid family leave, that number drops to 5 percent for the bottom quarter of earners.

To date, arguments for and against policies such as paid family leave have focused on economic costs and benefits. How will paid leave affect workers' productivity and wages? Can employers afford to provide it? The debate underscores the tension between workplaces -- which increasingly demand long and/or inflexible hours in today's economy -- and the substantial time and resources needed to care for children.

But the emphasis on productivity and costs has obscured the fact that more supportive family policies can also promote gender equality, both in the workplace and at home.

As scholars who research this set of issues, we recently published a study that found that if young workers were able to choose an egalitarian relationship with their future spouse or partner, they would select that option.

We also found that if policies such as flexible scheduling, paid family leave and subsidized child care were universally in place, women, in particular, would be even more likely to want an egalitarian relationship with their partner and much less likely to want to be responsible for household work.

These issues should matter to business leaders. The findings from our research underscore the point that achieving gender diversity in a work organization is contingent on managers' willingness to prioritize policies such as paid family leave and flexible scheduling.

Given the well-established link between diversity and the productivity and success of companies, business leaders and policymakers have a vested interest in implementing these types of policies.

Work-family policies such as paid family leave also affect more than a company's bottom line. They impact the way that men and women decide to organize their work and family lives, thereby increasing workers' happiness and satisfaction at work and at home.

Supportive workplace policies can empower people to live the kind of life they would ideally like to live, an ideal that is now more gender-egalitarian than in previous generations, and that is premised on more women "leaning in" at work and more men "leaning in" at home.