Industries dominated by men have the best maternity leave in the US

One of the many perks of working at Google.
One of the many perks of working at Google.
Image: Reuters/Erin Siegal
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Men and women who work and look after kids have it hard in the US. America has some of the least supportive family leave policies in the developed world: Federal law requires only that some workers have the right to 12 unpaid weeks, and a handful of states have mandated varying amounts of paid leave since California led the way in the 2004. The vast majority of paid leave goes to mothers.

A large study published this month by the Pew Research Center found that on average only 14% of US civilian workers get any paid time off when they have kids. Pew also revealed that the industries most supportive of women who have kids are some of those that have, historically, been the most male: Finance and technology. (Though male-dominated industries that pay workers less, like construction and transport, were among the worst.)

The difference is at least in part because of concerted efforts by some sectors. For several years, finance has been working hard to change its boys’ club image, which is both bad PR for a wealthy industry, and was increasingly called out by women who felt unable to progress in the sector because of policies that discriminated against gender in practical ways—like penalizing the time off needed to give birth to a baby or care for an infant.

Tech, which has also been criticized for low numbers of women in management and technical roles, has made more recent and high-profile changes. In 2015, Netflix offered all parents a year of paid leave, which is generous by international measures. More recently, a host of tech companies have created their own policies, as better benefits have become a sought-after perk on which companies compete.

The cost of providing maternity leave is of course lower when a workforce is mostly male. But the better companies become at supporting mothers, the more women stay: Google found that increasing the weeks of paid maternity leave from 12 to 18 halved the amount of mothers who quit.

Women are still in a small minority in the US finance industry, especially in managing money and people. In tech, a tiny number of companies are approaching a 50-50 split in some management teams and non-technical teams, but most are way off equality both overall and specifically in management and engineering.

Pew found that over 80% of Americans believe mothers should receive paid time off following the birth or adoption of a child, while just under 70% think fathers should also get paid leave. Most think it should be paid for by the company, rather than the state.

Of course, finance and tech are some of the richest industries, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that they come out on top. And it doesn’t bode well for women in less well-paid sectors like education, healthcare, and retail, which employ higher percentages of them. In these less well-paid sectors, the US also has bigger pay gaps between women and men than other rich countries.