Paid Family Leave Program: Lessons Learned

Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times notes that while a handful of states and most developed nations offer a form of paid family leave, the United States does not. In 1993 Congress passed a law requiring twelve weeks of unpaid leave, but not much has changed since then. Miller points out that the design of paid leave policies determines whether they will be accessible and fair. Research from states and other countries is available about what does and does not work. Miller cites Lelaine Bigelow at the National Partnership for Women and Families as saying, “What we’ve seen in the states is when you make poor policy compromises, it supercharges inequities in the programs.” What do we know that works?

  • A broad range of circumstances must be covered in the paid leave policy. Research from states reveals that broadening paid leave to cover births, illnesses, domestic violence, a spouse’s military deployment, bereavement, and caregiving for extended family decreases the chance of employer discrimination against women of childbearing age. “There is evidence that employers penalize people who take leave,” reports Kathryn Anne Edwards, an economist at the RAND Corporation. If everyone is eligible to take leave at some point in their career, it is more likely to be used and supported.
  • Paid leave works best when it is for at least three months but no more than six months. In Europe, where it is common for women to take a year off after birth, women are less likely to achieve a senior role than women in the United States and are more likely to work part time. In other words, research shows that longer leaves hurt women’s careers. But if leaves are too short, then the benefits can be lost. Miller cites Maya Rossin-Slater, an economist at Stanford, as saying, “There’s no research-based reason one should go down from twelve weeks” when designing a leave policy. She goes on to state, “You lose some of the benefits like breastfeeding, maternal mental health, and child immunizations” with shorter leaves.
  • Paid leave must include job protection. If you design a leave policy without building in job protection, you don’t have much of a leave benefit. Miller points out that a significant proportion of workers, especially low-wage workers, will not use it unless job protection is included.
  • Men and low-wage workers are more likely to take paid leave if wage replacement is high. Miller notes that it makes sense that low-wage earners need close to full wage replacement to be able to afford to take leave. In California, the first state to offer paid leave in 2002, the share of replacement pay for low-wage workers increased to 70 percent in 2016. A lower percentage is available to higher-wage workers. Another finding from research on existing state programs is that men are more likely to take leave if a higher share of their income is replaced. Miller shares that “when men take leave, research shows, it has a host of benefits, including decreasing the penalties on women who take it and increasing the health of the women and children men care for.” Research from other countries shows that when men who are eligible to take leave do not take it, gender inequities deepen.

It is shameful that the United States is the only developed country that does not provide paid family leave. It is also clear that research exists about how to offer leave that really works as a benefit. Let’s encourage our government to take this step.

 

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Closing the Childcare Gap

Compared to the rest of the developed world, the United States has a significant childcare gap. Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times writes that the pandemic “has forced the issue” about the relationship of childcare to the health of our economy. She cites Gina Adams, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, as noting, “Parents can’t work without it. It’s gotten to the point where the costs of not investing [in affordable, quality childcare] are much, much more clear” in terms of the drop in women’s workforce participation. Also at risk is the early development of children, especially low-income children, who are losing out on opportunities to participate in high quality early childhood education programs that prepare them for school and lead to successful adult lives because affordable childcare is not available.

Miller spells out the childcare gap for the United States as follows for care of children two years old or younger:

Category of childcare for children two years and younger United States Other

countries

Percent of childcare costs paid by parents 100 percent Denmark: parents pay maximum 25 percent

France: government gives tax credit for 85 percent

Average cost per month per child $1,100 Nordic countries: free

Denmark: free plus $700 quarterly child benefit paid to parents

Percent of GDP paid for childcare 0.2 percent OECD: 0.7 percent
Amount per child paid by federal government in tax credits annually $500 Denmark: $23,140

Norway: $29,700

Germany: $18,700

Combined amount paid by federal, state, and local government per child annually $1,000  
Paid family leave No federal policy Europe: fourteen months paid family leave

The resistance to subsidizing childcare in the United States runs deep. Miller notes that “Americans have long had mixed feelings about whether young children should stay home with family or go to childcare.” But as women continue to drop out of the workforce or are unable to return due to unmet childcare needs, our economy continues to struggle, and our youngest children are left behind. It is time for the United States to invest in childcare and catch up with the rest of the developed world.

 

Photo courtesy of Fons Heijnsbroek (public domain)

Women in the Workplace: New Research by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org

Each year, McKinsey, in partnership with LeanIn.Org, conducts the largest study of women in corporate America. This is the seventh year of this research, which involved 423 participating organizations employing twelve million people. Sixty-five thousand people participated in this year’s survey on their workplace experiences, and in-depth interviews were also conducted with women of diversew identities. The study covers a broad range of topics including the intersectional experiences of different groups relating to representation, promotions, COVID-19 burnout and stress, leadership recognition, microaggressions, the allyship gap, and “only” dynamics. The report also offers recommendations to organizations for change.

The top finding from this year’s research is that burnout is higher for women. The authors report that women in corporate America in 2021 are even more burned out than they were last year “after a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic—and increasingly more so than men.” One in three women report they have considered downshifting their career or leaving the workforce this year compared to one in four last year, a few months into the pandemic.

Other findings from this year’s research include the following:

  • Women’s representation in senior leadership has increased despite the added stress and exhaustion. The authors report that women have stepped up as stronger leaders. “Compared with men at the same level, women are doing more to support their teams and advance diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI] efforts. They are also more likely to be allies to women of color.”
  • There is a lack of recognition for women leaders who support their teams and advance DEI efforts during the pandemic. Their extra efforts go largely unrecognized and unrewarded.
  • Microaggressions persist. Women of color face the same types and frequencies of microaggressions as they did before the pandemic. They are far more likely than white women to experience disrespectful or “othering” behavior from coworkers. Women and others with traditionally marginalized identities who regularly experience microaggressions are twice as likely to burn out as those who don’t.
  • White people are still not allies. Even though white people in the study report themselves to be allies to women of color, the study authors report that white people “are no more likely than last year to speak out against discrimination, mentor or sponsor a women of color,” or to advocate for them in other ways.
  • There is a “broken rung” in the promotion pipeline. The study authors note that the first step up to manager has been “broken” since they started tracking trends in 2016. Specifically, “women are promoted to manager at far lower rates than men.” For every one hundred men promoted to manager for the first time, only eighty-six women are promoted. This explains why representation of women at senior levels has improved more slowly than women’s overall representation: the number of women eligible for promotion to senior levels becomes more and more narrow as women move up.
  • While women have made some gains overall, women of color have lost ground to white women and to men of color at every step in the pipeline and are severely underrepresented at the top. “Between entry level and the C-suite, the representation of women of color drops off by more than 75 percent. As a result, women of color account for only 4 percent of C-suite leaders.”
  • Being an “only” takes a toll. The experience of being an “only,” or often being the only people of their race or gender in the room at work, is difficult and takes a toll. The authors note that “onlies” stand out and are often heavily scrutinized, their work put under a microscope. “Double onlies,” or women of color who may be the only woman and the only person of color in the room, face more bias, discrimination, and pressure to perform, which can result in faster burnout.
  • Mothers of young children are often another type of “only” when they are the only member of a team with a young child. Mothers face more barriers and biases than fathers in the workplace.

The study also offers some of the following recommendations for change that companies, managers, and employees can make:

  1. Invest deeply in DEI to create a culture that fully leverages the benefits of diversity.
  2. Put practices into place that ensure promotions are equitable.
  3. Reduce bias in hiring and performance reviews.
  4. Track representation, hiring, and promotions and break out metrics for women of color instead of lumping all women together.
  5. Hold senior leaders accountable for progress on diversity goals and factor diversity metrics into performance reviews with material consequences for poor performance.
  6. Reward managers for investing in employee well-being to prevent employee burnout.
  7. Raise DEI awareness for all employees.
  8. Provide training on bias, antiracism, and allyship.
  9. Include valuing diversity in the company’s values.

With these steps, we can make the workplace a better place for everyone.

 

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

 

Women Are Underestimated by Their Managers: New Research

New research published by the Yale School of Management and conducted by Kelly Shue, professor of management at Yale, shows that while women get higher performance ratings than men, they are consistently judged as having less leadership potential by their managers and receive fewer promotions. Shue and her coauthors, Alan Benson of the University of Minnesota and Danielle Li of MIT, studied a large North American retail chain and found that while more than half of the entry-level workers—56 percent—are women, fewer and fewer women hold positions at each level of increasing responsibility:

  • 48 percent of department managers are women
  • 35 percent of store managers are women
  • 14 percent of district managers are women

When the authors studied the assessment and promotion records for nearly thirty thousand workers at the large retail chain, they found that women are 14 percent less likely to be promoted at the company each year because “they are consistently judged as having lower leadership potential than men.” The company uses a two-part annual assessment for (1) for evaluating actual performance and (2) rating leadership potential. While women’s performance at the company is rated 7.3 percent higher than men’s, on average, their potential ratings are 5.8 percent lower. The authors estimate that this lower potential rating could explain up to 50 percent of the gap in promotions.

Previous studies have shown that women are rated higher, in general, on seventeen out of nineteen leadership characteristics, but both the gender pay gap and the dearth of women in senior management positions have not changed despite high ratings. In Shue’s study, she and her colleagues tested whether managers might be correct in assessing women as excellent performers in their current roles but also as lacking the skills to be promoted. Shue explains that to test this possibility, “they identified women and men with similar performance and potential scores for a given evaluation period,” then looked at evaluations for these same employees in the next evaluation period. The women continued to have higher performance scores than men whether they had been promoted or not. In other words, the women who had the higher scores but were not promoted were held to a different standard than the men who were promoted. The authors point out that the ratings on leadership potential are highly subjective, which probably makes them more vulnerable to unconscious bias.

This research also found that as women move up to more senior positions, their potential scores get lower and lower, which eventually shut them out of the most senior roles. It is not a surprise, then, that women end up earning less than men.

What can companies do to create a level playing field? The authors suggest that organizations look for other metrics or methods for forecasting who will be a good manager. It is clear that the current decision-making processes for promotions used by most organizations reflect stereotypes and biases that blind them to the leadership talent that is often right in front of them.

 

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Forgotten Women in History—Part VII

From time to time I find it inspiring to write about women from the past with amazing accomplishments who I have never heard of. Today I’m writing about the first Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, a woman who discovered the universe, a woman whose research on genetics overturned hundreds of years of misconceptions, and the woman who built pianos for Beethoven. Have I got your attention?

Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831–1895)

It took from 1895 until 2020 for Rebecca Lee Crumpler to receive the recognition she deserved. Cindy Schmerler, writing for the New York Times, notes that until 2020, Crumpler and her husband lay in unmarked graves in a Hyde Park, Massachusetts, cemetery, her contributions forgotten.

Crumpler earned her medical degree from the New England Female Medical College in 1864, the only medical degree ever granted by them to a Black woman. After graduation, she worked as a medical doctor for the Freedman’s Bureau, an agency created by Congress during Reconstruction to provide services for emancipated slaves for whom it was difficult to get medical services from white physicians. Schmerler explains that “throughout her life, she was ignored, slighted or rendered insignificant, even invisible. Because of her race and gender, Crumpler was denied admitting privileges to local hospitals, had trouble getting prescriptions filled by pharmacists and was often ridiculed by administrators and fellow doctors.”

She persevered because she knew the Black community needed her. From her house in Boston she treated mostly women and children, regardless of their ability to pay. She published a book, dedicated to nurses and mothers, called A Book of Medical Discourses, which is considered the precursor to the popular book, published in 1984, What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

Cecelia Payne-Gaposhkin (1900–1979)

Born in England, Cecelia Payne-Gaposhkin’s mother would not give her money for a college education, so she won a scholarship to Cambridge. Although, she completed her course work there, Cambridge would not grant her a degree because she was a woman, so she moved to the United Stated to work at Harvard. According to the New York Times archives, Dr. Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin was one of the foremost women in astronomy, yet her accomplishments go largely unmentioned. The New York Times notes that she was the first woman to receive a tenured professorship at Harvard and headed the university’s astronomy department from 1956 to 1960. Her doctoral thesis on stellar atmospheres was later described by Otto Struve, head of the International Astronomical Union, as “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.” Dr. Payne-Gaposhkin is described as the woman who discovered what the universe is made of.

Nettie Stevens (1861–1912)

Born in Vermont in 1861, Nettie Stevens pinched pennies to slowly pay for her education. Finally, at the age of forty-one, she received her doctorate at Bryn Mawr College in the study of genetics. As reported by the New York Times in 1912 in her obituary, “Dr. Stevens was one of the most eminent morphologists in this country and by her success in research and her many scientific articles published in American and German biological journals had made her name widely known both here and in Germany.”

Genetic sex determination was still a mystery, and doctors thought that sex was determined by what a woman ate during pregnancy or how warm she kept her body. Stevens did research on insects and discovered that male insects had XY-shaped chromosomes while female chromosomes were shaped like XX. This discovery overturned hundreds of years of misconceptions. Unfortunately, around the same time in 1905 that she made and published her research, her former advisor, Edmund Wilson, made the same discovery. Her writings were received with skepticism, although her work had the strongest proof. Because of her untimely death, her work was largely overlooked or forgotten, and Wilson is largely credited with this discovery.

Nannette Streicher (1769–1833)

Nannette Streicher is remembered in history as a close friend and caretaker of Beethoven, but she was also a master pianist in her own right who performed for Mozart at the age of eight. She was also was one of the finest piano builders in Europe. Patricia Morrisroe writes that Streicher was a mechanical genius who mastered her father’s piano-building techniques by the age of ten. After her father’s death, she established her own piano-manufacturing company and expanded the range, sound, and sturdiness of the piano as an instrument to be played in performance halls. Her manufacturing warehouses produced fifty to sixty-five pianos a year. She was a friend to Beethoven for over two decades, and they were united by their shared devotion to the piano.

Let us not forget these and the countless other women who have made history.

 

Photo is public domain.

Men Drop Out of College But the Gender Pay Gap Persists

The Wall Street Journal reports that three-fourths of the pandemic-driven college dropouts in the United States were men. These numbers would seem to depict a crisis for men that predicts lower future earning power. If the earnings for men are going down, does that mean the gender wage gap will close? For many reasons, the answer appears to be no. Kevin Carey of the New York Times explains some of the reasons why the gender wage gap persists—and why men in the United States, in general, are not in a pandemic-driven education crisis:

  • The gender imbalance in college enrollment and graduation is not new. Carey notes that women’s enrollment in college surged during the 1970s, but “women have outnumbered men on campus since the late 1970s. . . . The numbers haven’t changed much in recent decades.”
  • Male enrollment in public and private nonprofit four-year colleges dropped more from 2018 to 2019—before the pandemic—than from 2019 to 2020.
  • The raw numbers do not take into account that some college degrees are worth more than others. For example, men still dominate in fields like technology and engineering, which offer some of the highest salaries.
  • There are still some good-paying jobs available to men without college degrees, but there are relatively few for women.
  • Many female-dominated jobs don’t pay well.
  • As women overcome obstacles and move into male-dominated fields, the pay usually goes down in those fields.
  • Data reflects a class difference: students from higher socioeconomic classes are less likely to drop out of college.
  • Last year, women were less likely than men to leave community college despite their disproportionate responsibility for caregiving and domestic work during the pandemic.
  • There is structural admissions discrimination by selective colleges that do not want a gender imbalance in their enrollment. While women apply to colleges in larger numbers than men, their applications are often rejected to maintain a gender balance. Carey cites a dean of admissions at Kenyon College as saying, “Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive.”

Carey points out that the gender pay gap has been persistent despite the higher levels of enrollment and graduation from college by women for decades. Obviously, the problem is not just about whether or not you have a college degree. The problem is about societal attitudes about work and family, discriminatory policies and procedures that limit women’s access, and the lack of affordable childcare.

Just today, my cousin called to tell me how surprised she was when a woman plumber showed up at her door today to fix a plumbing problem in her house. The fact that it is still so unusual to see a woman plumber says a lot about what we consider “women’s work” versus “men’s work.” We still have a long way to go to even this playing field.

 

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash

International Roundup: Gender Issues in the Workplace

I believe it is important to check in on top stories in other parts of the world on the topic of gender issues in the workplace to balance out our US-centric media. Today’s headlines take place in France, Japan, and Nigeria.

France

In Paris, France, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has announced that she will run for president as the Socialist candidate in the April 2022 presidential election. Elected as the first woman mayor of Paris in 2014 and reelected in 2020, Hidalgo is known as a charismatic and divisive mayor. In 2018, she was fined $110,000 by the French government for appointing too many women (eleven out of sixteen top positions) to senior city government positions. Hidalgo declared the fine “absurd” as she worked to address systemic problems with the underrepresentation of women in top civil service jobs across the country. The ministry in charge of the French Civil Service found that since she was elected, “Paris has made great strides in correcting historic imbalances. Across the city government, women now hold 47 percent of senior management positions.”

Hidalgo, the daughter of poor Spanish immigrants, would be the first woman elected as president in France. Roger Cohen, reporting for the New York Times, notes, “Up to now, the Fifth Republic has produced eight male ‘présidents’ over six decades.” Fittingly, she was anointed as the standard bearer for the Socialist Party at the Chateau de Blois, where in 1429 Joan of Arc stopped for a blessing before defeating the British at Orléans. Cohen observes that “French Socialists appear ready to put their faith in a woman facing a tough campaign and unlikely odds.” Let’s see what happens.

Japan

Even though the Japanese government promised in 2003 that by 2020 women would occupy 30 percent of all corporate management positions, only 13 percent of management positions in Japan were occupied by women in 2020. Ben Dooley of the New York Times notes that Japan continues to have some of the starkest inequality in the developed world. He reports that

  • Women in Japan earn 44 percent less than men.
  • Only 6 percent of board directors in listed companies are women.
  • 44 percent of women worked in part-time or temporary positions compared with just under 12 percent of men.
  • Many women leave their jobs after having a child because Japan’s seniority-based systems does not allow them to make up for lost time due to maternity leave.

In the meantime, despite Japan’s tech-savvy image, Malcom Foster reports that Japan is actually “a digital laggard with a traditional paperbound office culture where fax machines and personal seals known as hanko remain common.” The pandemic heightened awareness in the country that it needs to modernize, but Japan has a severe shortage of technology workers and engineering students. However, Foster reports that university programs that produce these workers have a near absence of women:

  • Japan has some of the lowest percentages of women in the developed world in science and technology programs, according to UNESCO data, and the smallest share of women doing research in science and technology.
  • Women make up 14 percent of university graduates in Japanese engineering programs and 25.8 percent in the natural sciences. This compares to 20.4 percent and 52.5 percent in the United States and 30.8 percent and 51.4 percent in India.

While the government of Japan has started to address these problems by mandating computer programming classes in elementary school for all boys and girls, there is still a long way to go before the mindset changes in the larger culture that tech is a strictly male domain.

Nigeria

Martha Agbani is the leader of a business in Nigeria that empowers women and cleans up the environment ruined by oil-polluting multinationals such as Royal Dutch Shell. Her goal is to put money in the pockets of women, who suffer disproportionately from the effects of oil pollution when their livelihood, harvesting shellfish, is destroyed by oil spills. Ruth Maclean of the New York Times explains that Agbani is doing this by hiring a lot of women to raise mangrove trees that they will sell to Royal Dutch Shell.

Maclean explains that mangrove trees filter brackish water, provide protection against coastal erosion, and provide breeding grounds for aquatic life. After two oil spills in 2007 and 2008 killed off thousands of acres of mangrove forests near Agbani’s village, Shell agreed to compensate the community. Agbani plans to both heal the ravaged environment and empower local women by planting large mangrove nurseries and selling the mangrove tress to Shell. This is entrepreneurial environmental activism and activism for women’s rights at its finest.

Let us continue to learn about and support women around the world who are championing women’s rights.

 

Photo by Dovile Ramoskaite on Unsplash

Moms Worked Full Time on Childcare Last Year in Addition to Their Job

New research, collected and released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and analyzed by the Brookings Institute, shows that in 2020, the mothers of young children spent about eight hours a day on childcare while spending six hours on average working. Chabeli Carrazana, reporting for the 19th, explains that the data are averages based on thousands of interviews by the Bureau of Labor Statistics with people across the country about how they spent their time on a daily basis between May and December 2020 when the pandemic closed down schools and childcare centers. Specifically, Carrazana reports that

  • On average, moms with children ages twelve and under spent about eight hours a day on direct or indirect childcare last year while working an average of six hours a day, while dads spent an average of five hours per day on childcare while working eight hours a day. Data were not collected for nonbinary people or LBGTQ+ couples.
  • Overall, moms spent twice as much time as dads doing primary care activities like feeding, bathing, dressing, or playing with children.
  • Fathers of children between ages five and twelve did increase the amount of time they spent on direct care, but mothers of elementary school children still did three more hours of direct and indirect childcare combined than did fathers, even with the increased time spent by fathers.

The fallout for women’s careers has been described in a previous post. Carrazana cites the US Census Bureau as confirming that “in April 2020 alone, 3.5 million moms of school-age children shifted out of active work, moving into paid or unpaid leave, losing their jobs, or leaving the labor force completely. . . . About half of all moms were not working that month.” Hundreds of thousands of mothers left the workforce completely over the past year.

This “shesession” has been particularly punishing for women of color, for whom the unemployment rate remains high at 8.5 percent, compared to 5 percent for white women. . In addition, single mothers, who typically have a higher employment rate because they are the sole breadwinners for their families, still lag five percentage points below where they were in January 2020 before the pandemic.

Labor shortages are in the headlines daily, but women cannot fully participate in the labor force without the availability of quality, affordable childcare. In fact, women’s participation in the labor force is the lowest it has been since 1988.

We must both get the COVID-19 crisis under control and fund childcare. Our economy and women’s careers depend on this.

 

Photo by Tanaphong Toochinda on Unsplash (BY CC 0)

Paid Leave for Miscarriages and Other Family Loss: New Legislation

I am the oldest of four children. After my mother gave birth to me and my sister, she had two late-term miscarriages, and I remember her intense sadness and depression after each loss. Even though she went on to deliver two more healthy babies several years later, the sadness never fully lifted for her. Twenty years later, my father asked me to help him help her. We talked with her about the fact that she had never been able to grieve the two lost babies. It was simply taboo at the time for her or anyone else to bring up the topic. She agreed that it might be helpful to her to have a formal acknowledgment of her lost babies. We had a funeral and placed grave markers in our family plot inscribed with their names and birth/death dates. She shared that this ritual did help her a lot.

Because of my mother’s experience, I was drawn to an article by Jennifer Gerson writing for the 19th about new legislation sponsored by Representative Ayanna Pressley and Senator Tammy Duckworth called the Support through Loss Act. Gerson notes that “while pregnancy is typically widely celebrated, those struggling to grow their families typically do so privately out of any combination of grief, stigma or fear of retaliation should their employer find out that they are trying to conceive.” They point out that miscarriage, failed IVF cycles, or unsuccessful adoption or surrogacy plans can be losses that individuals and couples are expected to bear privately, often with the admonition from professionals to “move on” and resume their lives immediately.

Pressley and Duckworth note several reasons why we need to change these dynamics. We need to publicly recognize that family building can involve painful challenges, and employers need to demonstrate compassion and understanding about related grief and loss. The bills’ authors point out that providing paid family leave and support services for grieving families is a critical workers’ rights issue. Workers need protection from fear of retaliation if they access leave and mental health resources when dealing with a loss. Duckworth states that it is “time to recognize the contributions of women in our economy” by providing paid leave and support that, according to Erin Grau, the cofounder and COO of Charter, addresses “the full spectrum of challenges around becoming a parent and being a parent today” in the workplace.

To bring about these changes, the new legislation sponsored by Pressley and Duckworth calls for

  • Expanding paid family leave to include pregnancy loss as part of bereavement leave
  • Allocating $45 million for coordinated research about pregnancy loss
  • Requiring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to distribute information on pregnancy loss, miscarriage prevalence, treatment options, mental health options, and other support strategies

Both Pressley and Duckworth became committed to sponsoring this legislation because they and their constituents have experienced loss as aspiring parents. This is an excellent example of the added value that women bring to leadership.

 

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Olympic Athletes Who Are Women: It’s Not an Even Playing Field

The media coverage of the recent Tokyo Olympics Games has featured a number of “Olympian-mother success stories,” reports Lindsay Crouse of the New York Times. Crouse notes a few examples:

  • Aliphine Tuliamuk and Sally Kipyego, both with babies and young children, represented the United States in the Olympic marathon.
  • When the sprinters Quanera Hayes and Allyson Felix qualified for the Olympics, they brought their toddlers onto the track to celebrate.

Crouse also points out, however, that while motherhood in elite sports is something to celebrate, there is also another reality for athletes who have children: having children puts their careers and incomes at risk.

Crouse reminds us that in 2019, Olympic runners Alysia Montaño, Kara Goucher, and Allyson Felix challenged the sports industry for celebrating them as mothers in advertisements while cutting their pay when they missed races because of pregnancy and childbirth. Their public complaints got Nike to change its contracts to include some protections for the pregnant athletes it sponsors. But, Crouse notes, the real root of the problem is a societal one:

  • The United States is the only wealthy Western country that does not ensure paid leave for all parents or health benefits and equitable, quality healthcare for all.
  • Black women are still about three times as likely as white women to die from pregnancy. Racial disparities in healthcare are serious in the United States. For example, Serena Williams almost died after childbirth.

Talya Minsberg writes about an especially egregious situation that Olympic athletes who are new mothers had to face: the Olympic Committee prohibited them from bringing their nursing babies to the games because of COVID-19-related restrictions. When the athletes protested against this decision, the International Olympic Committee reversed the ban but provided impractical accommodations, according to the Spanish swimmer Ona Carbonell.

Crouse points out that how the sports industry treats mother-athletes reflects our culture. For this reason, athletes historically have been powerful agents for change:

  • Black men taking a knee for racial justice has contributed to the change in the criminal legal justice system brought about by the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • Female college basketball players argued and won for equality in access to training equipment.
  • The United States Women’s Soccer Team filed a lawsuit for equal pay during the Olympics, as reported by Alexandra E. Petri and Andrew Das.

Crouse closes her article by noting, “Yes, cheer for Felix and all the other brave, determined and talented mothers out there defying the constraints imposed on them. But remember that they are succeeding despite the fact that we failed them.”

 

Photo courtesy of maisa_nyc (CC BY-SA 2.0)