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Mothers Under Pressure and Maternity Leave Around the World
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Vivien Lettry


Although women’s rights throughout the world have undeniably improved in the last 50 years, there is still a long way to go. We have not reached a position where women are adequately valued as an essential part of the work force and as the ones who bring new life into the world. There are alarming differences in women’s rights from country to country.


As a research associate at a university in the United States and an expectant mother, I wanted to find out what women worker’s rights were regarding maternity leave here. I was simply shocked when the university informed me that, by law, a working mother could only take six weeks of unpaid leave to care for her newborn. Despite being one of the most developed and influential countries in the world, the United States is woefully behind the rest of the world when it comes to maternity leave. According to the International Labor Organization, there is only one other nation, Papua New Guinea, that offers unpaid leave.


There are many points to be considered about the urgency of guaranteeing a working mother paid leave. Women need time to physically recover from pregnancy and the labor process. It is imperative to give them the opportunity to establish the mother-infant bonding, which is disrupted when she is away so soon after delivery. In the best-case scenario, when a mother is able to breast feed, it takes a while for the body to learn and adjust itself to nursing. When it happens, it not only strengthens initial immunity and nourishes the baby, but can provide a foundation of mother-infant bonding and for the mother’s physical recovery.


Length of maternity leave to which pregnant individuals are entitled among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Data from OECD Gender Portal.

Perhaps I have been spoiled after living in Sweden for six years prior to coming to the United States, having been exposed to their social benefits and gender equality, which have always been one of the best when compared to other nations. Not only can parents take one and a half years of paternal leave, equally shared between mother and father, but the pay is also 80 to 90 percent of the full-time salary. One parent can even decide to extend time off, at reduced monthly pay, until the child reaches six years of age.


Now consider Brazil, an emerging economy that faces numerous political and social struggles, with gender equality status ranked number 79 in the World Economic Gender Gap Index. Brazil offers a fully paid four-month maternity leave for women working in the private sector and six months paid leave for those in public service.


Moving around the globe, Japan’s regulation, at its core, does not guarantee many rights to a new mother. She is entitled to one and a half months absence before and two months after delivery, at two-thirds pay. The country has recently extended the period a mother can be absent from work for extra childcare from 1 to 2 years total, receiving 50 percent of her salary during this time. However, it is up to employers to decide how generous they will be when granting leave. Apart from the psychological pressure on women to be loyal to the company and come back to work as soon as possible, some may be coaxed to resign after they have given birth, therefore these laws do not truly assure job security.


The Australian government guarantees new mothers four months of partially paid leave (national minimum wage), but that can be complimented by the employer to the mother’s actual salary. Additionally, the country offers a maximum of two years unpaid leave, which may be taken by either mother or father, whoever will be the child’s main caregiver. A similar regulation exists in Germany, where a mother can take three and half months of full paid leave and up to three years unpaid, and the latter could also be partially paid by the government.


I have lived and worked in each of these countries during my lifetime. I see maternity rights as one clear reflection of how women are regarded and respected in a society. I never considered myself a feminist. I grew up in a micro-environment where men and women had basically equal obligations and rights. Becoming an adult in a male-oriented culture, moving around the world, and discovering how women are considered and given the chance to develop and actively participate in decision-making processes, gave me a realistic view of where women rights actually stand around the world.


Postdocs, Pregnancy, & Maternity Leave


Postdocs often have unique designations and needs that may not fit with standard employee benefits. A Postdoc's Guide to Pregnancy and Maternity Leave offers some general information for postdocs, including tips on keeping your research going and talking with your supervisor. The Pregnant Scholar, a project under the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings, provides insight into legal protections for postdocs against pregnancy discrimination. You might also be interested in their recent report, published in partnership with the NPA, Parents in the Pipeline.


Parenthood should not be something a working mother or father are punished for financially or professionally. This is a topic that must be discussed in order to make people aware of how parenthood is valued. Women are being undermined, socially and economically, either by returning to work quickly, losing their jobs, or quitting due to harassment, stress to make ends meet, or lack of protections. As one of the top economies and an influential in the world, it is unacceptable that working women in the United States are so unattended and undervalued. We must talk about it, be critical, and work towards more positive outcomes in the future.


Vivien Lettry, DVM, PhD, is a postdoctoral scholar who studies cell therapy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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