Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Problem with Family Friendly Laws

American liberals are pushing for laws to mandate "family friendly" corporate policies: extended maternity and paternity leave, flexible time for new parents, subsidized child care. Several European countries have had such policies for a decade or more, allowing sociologists time to assess their effects. And they are not all benign:
Spain passed a law in 1999 giving workers with children younger than 7 the right to ask for reduced hours without fear of being laid off. Those who took advantage of it were nearly all women.

Over the next decade, companies were 6 percent less likely to hire women of childbearing age compared with men, 37 percent less likely to promote them and 45 percent more likely to dismiss them, according to a study led by Daniel Fernández-Kranz, an economist at IE Business School in Madrid. The probability of women of childbearing age not being employed climbed 20 percent. Another result: Women were more likely to be in less stable, short-term contract jobs, which are not required to provide such benefits.
Claire Cain Miller has a bunch more similar examples at the Times. It seems, as some people feared from the beginning, that such laws help push women onto the "mommy track" where they may have more flexibility but pay a high price in terms of salaries and promotions. Some women choose this path and are probably happy with the trade-offs, so there isn't much to complain about there -- you can't have everything. But some studies have found that these laws make corporations less likely to hire or promote any woman. Nothing reinforces a chauvinist's dismissive attitude toward women like a government mandate requiring special treatment of moms.

I, of course, think that we are all too obsessed with work and salaries and promotions, and I am not sure women passed over for promotion have really lost anything. Certainly nothing that compares to a child. But plenty of women do care about these things, and it is only fair to note that laws benefiting less ambitious women with children can end up having major economic impacts, and may exact a particular toll on the lean-in crowd. Ranting about sexist male managers and hoping they all die is not going to help here; it would be nice if we were all more understanding, but there isn't any way to mandate that, and for the foreseeable future we are stuck with a lot of sexist jerks in leadership roles.


G. Verloren said...

So wait - we can demonstrably show that businesses are less likely to hire women of childbearing age? Isn't that clearly sexual discrimination? Even assuming the motivation is simply financial self interest - "This employee MIGHT get pregnant and cost us paid leave" - that's still specifically discriminating against women.

Does Spanish law not prohibit such discrimination? Or is it just that enforcement isn't really feasible, which seems like a universal sort of problem?

One thing I'm curious about is why are so few men taking advantages of these benefits? Is it simply the power of the old tradition of men as breadwinners, leaving the rearing of their children to their wives? This is Spain, after all... Latin machismo is a stereotype for a reason.

John said...

EU law prohibits gender discrimination, but, yes, it's very hard to enforce.

One thing I have noticed in my own and my friends' lives is the power of a new baby to bring back traditional gender roles with a vengeance, as mothers fall in love with their babies and men redouble their career efforts to pay the bills. This isn't universal, of course, but it is still the most common response.