Ask any new working mom what would help her balance both work and home life more successfully, and you’re likely to hear a range of responses: paid maternity leave, flexible work options, affordable childcare, more support at home, better breastfeeding support at work … The list goes on.
In fact, the answer for most working moms in America, sadly, is “all of the above.” And it just goes to show one inescapable fact: Working moms desperately need help, and we’re not getting it.
If anecdotal stories of burnout from the working moms in your life aren’t enough to convince you, consider this: The United States is now in the back of the pack among developed countries when it comes to women's participation in the labor force, according to a new report this week from the International Monetary Fund, "Labor Force Participation in Advanced Economies: Drivers and Prospects."
We used to be a leader. In 1985, 70 percent of U.S. women ages 25 to 54 were in the labor force (meaning they had a job or were actively searching), second only to Sweden, the Washington Post reports. In more than three decades, that has only increased slightly. Today, 74 percent of U.S. women in what’s known as the “prime age” group are working.
Compare that to our peers, and it’s especially clear the U.S. is falling behind. During the same time period, the percent of prime-age women working in Germany jumped from 59 to 83 percent. France jumped from 68 to 83 percent. Now, Japan, Australia and Canada all have more prime-age women in the workforce than the U.S.
The difference is especially striking just in the last decade. While the prime-age participation rate for women increased from 2008 to 2016 for most advanced economies, the U.S. actually experienced the sharpest decline of any other advanced economy, with the rate falling by almost 3 percentage points.
And the reason why is glaringly obvious: American women quit working because it’s so damn hard to be both a mother and an employee.
"The striking difference in the participation trend for U.S. women relative to the average European trend can be attributed to the more supportive policy changes in Europe," the IMF report concluded. "Better access to childcare, longer maternity leave and greater flexibility in work arrangements are associated with higher female labor force participation."
America is the only developed country without paid maternity leave. We are one of the few without subsidized childcare. And we have an antiquated work culture that values face time over efficiency. We work longer hours than any of our European peers, yet we aren't the most productive. It’s a system that drives working moms out of the workforce—a problem for working families, sure, but a problem for everyone else too.
Economists have long recognized that getting more women into the workforce is a crucial way to improve a country’s economy. It’s especially important for developed countries like the U.S., where tax dollars from workers help pay for programs for retirees, like Social Security and Medicare—and there’s soon to be far more retirees than workers. In fact, if the trends don’t change, the IMF predicts the prime-age working population in 2050 in the United States will support almost double the number of elderly people as they do now.
So the next time someone tells you paid family leave or other measures to support working families are too expensive, remind them that it’s actually far more expensive to do without them. To keep growing, the American economy needs working moms to keep working. So let’s help them do it.