Working mothers’ horror stories have been piling up. In the past two weeks, The Washington Post and Nieman have reported about women’s struggles to pump breast milk at work and the difficulties of being a mother in the journalism industry. This adds to years of reporting on the hardships working mothers face because of a lack of protections and a lack of a national paid leave policy. These stories also showcase the nearly superhuman efforts mothers have made to secure workplace rights that are common in other developed countries, all of which amount to a kind of penalty mothers have to pay on top of their actual labor.
The difficulties these women face range from the humiliating to the life-threatening. As one woman who worked in a Silicon Valley tech start-up told the Post, “The CEO of the company used to announce when I was going to pump by singing a little song for everyone to hear: ‘Pump, pump, pump it up!’” Then there’s the heartbreaking case of Reyna García, who filed a lawsuit against her employer, a grocery store, after it required her to lift heavy boxes despite her request to accommodate her high-risk pregnancy, culminating in the death of her baby.
The problem has become so persistent and the United States has lagged so far behind—at least 190 countries have, at minimum, some kind of paid leave for mothers, whereas the U.S. offers none—that the drive to protect working mothers has found backers across the political spectrum. The conservative think tank AEI calls paid leave an “issue whose time has come.” Ivanka Trump’s last remaining shreds of credibility are tied to the issue, which at the very least shows that she understands how its political cachet helps her brand, even if her actual policy would not really benefit women who work. Tech companies, eager to show that they are at the vanguard of a progressive corporate culture, have led the way on offering generous paid family leave policies to attract talented employees and stay ahead of the competition.
But in the absence of a federal family leave policy, many women have had to demand it from their employers. As detailed in the Nieman report, five senior women at The New York Times spent months preparing a proposal that made the case for better family leave benefits, which they then presented to Mark Thompson, the newspaper’s president and CEO, as well as members of its executive committee.
One of the women, Erin Grau, detailed to the New Republic what she and her team had to go through to prepare the proposal. Grau estimated that, collectively, they spent somewhere between 100 and 150 hours doing research, interviewing colleagues, analyzing data provided to them by human resources, and preparing for the actual meeting with Thompson. “That’s not to mention all the mental tax,” Grau told me. “We thought about this all the time.” During this process, four of the five women were already on or began maternity leave, meaning that they did all of this on top of taking care of newborns and doing their actual jobs.
“We all worked in product development, and were all experts at building products,” Grau said. “We built a program as thoughtfully as possible, applying the same rigor that we applied to our normal jobs.” They went to the company’s legal department with questions, and leaned on research from articles that the Times itself had published. They were fortunate to have allies in HR and in the Times’s senior leadership, one of whom brokered the meeting with the company’s executives.
After the meeting, the higher-ups immediately accepted the women’s proposal—a credit to the enormous amount of work they put into it. The Times extended the company’s leave policy from 11.1 weeks to 16-18 weeks for birth mothers, as well as 10 weeks for adoptive parents, fathers, and partners. Grau says that they started the work in the spring of 2015 and the new policy went into effect in March of 2016—a whole year from beginning to end.
Grau advises other working mothers to be proactive. “Don’t wait for someone else, or HR, to do the work for you,” she told Nieman. She also recommends organizing in numbers and finding advocates in the higher echelons of the company. This is certainly good advice for women who work in industries where they can interact with executives and where they are valued. (The women at the Times implied that if the company wanted to retain them, it would have to update its family leave policies.) And it’s amazing that these women spent so much of their own time and resources to secure better policies for all the families working at their company. Grau told me that, since their success at the Times, ten people from different media companies have reached out to her for advice on how to tackle paid leave in their own organizations. All ten of them were, of course, women.
But this extra work—all unpaid, all shouldered by women—can also be seen as a burden. And while there are many lessons to be learned from Grau’s project, this is an unsustainable strategy for women in the country overall. As Grau acknowledges, “We were all senior enough and we had the education that we could apply to this business problem in our daily lives.”
Low-income mothers are much less likely to have the time and the career security to force their employers to offer better leave policy. Unionization is one recourse—in Minnesota, young state employees won six weeks of paid family leave from the governor through their unions—but right-to-work laws have been steadily crippling unions across the country. (In fact, Minnesota’s new paid leave policy is now in limbo because the Republican-controlled legislature needs to vote on it to make it permanent.)
Paid family leave varies heavily by race and class in the United States; only 5 percent of the bottom quartile of earners have access to paid family leave, while 22 percent of those in the top quartile do. People of color are nearly twice as likely to have an unmet need for leave than white workers. Family leave also varies by industry—a recent Pew Research study showed that 37 percent of workers in the finance and insurance sector have access to paid family leave, versus 5 percent of construction workers.
When left to the goodwill of corporations, these disparities will only persist. Even tech companies, which are lauded for their forward-thinking family-friendly policies, sometimes offer different benefits to white-collar and blue-collar workers within the same organization. This is why activists are pushing for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro’s FAMILY Act, a national policy that would provide 12 weeks of family and medical leave at two-thirds pay. “There’s a lot of effort to fight for the FAMILY Act so you don’t have to win the boss lottery or the state lottery,” Julie Kashen, policy director at Make It Work, told the New Republic.
No matter what strides individual working mothers make, the country’s lack of a paid family leave policy remains a burden to women and parents, in ways both big and small. Women shouldn’t have to spend hundreds of hours getting their companies to implement sensible leave policies. Others might not even have that option.