08/16/2013 12:15 pm ET

Opting For Free Time

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, one of the better legacies of the Clinton administration. The bill guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for workers at covered employers, and the right to continuing health coverage while they're on leave. It was a huge step when it passed, and yet this legislation is more notable for what it did not do. It failed to equalize the gender ratio in high-end jobs , to significantly change the division of household labor between men and women, or to bring U.S. family leave policies in line with those of most other wealthy countries.

We leave working parents, or anybody who's managing work and care or any other obligation, out in the cold in a way that most of these other countries just simply don't,” says Janet Gornick, professor of political science and sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and an expert on family policy.

But, as usual, instead of discussing the kinds of policies we might institute that would continue the unfinished work of the FMLA for all women, the big stories about work and family this week revolve around wealthy women “opting out”—either of the paid workforce, as in a New York Times Magazine piece by Judith Warner, or of having children, as in Lauren Sandler's Time cover story. Both stories focus almost exclusively on women, with men interviewed either as researchers or as husbands commenting on their wife's decision.

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