How American women got stuck in the kitchen

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The IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook shows the cost of having no federal paid leave programme

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IN 1986, “American Women in Transition”, a study by the Russell Sage Foundation, described the vast changes then afoot in American society. Some twenty years previously, it says, in what sometimes reads as old-fashioned language, few mothers had jobs; by the early 1980s “three fifths of wives with school-age children were working outside the home”. This extraordinary change was reflected in the popular culture of the 1980s, from movies like “Working Girl” and “9 to 5” to books like Helen Gurley Brown’s “Having it all”.

Back then, America led most of the rich world in terms of the proportion of women who worked. In 1985, 70% of American women aged between 25 and 54 were in the labour market (either in work or looking for it). That compared with 57% in Australia and 59% in Germany. But the IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook, published this week, shows how these countries have caught up with America and overtaken it. While the proportion of “prime age” women in the labour market in the United States is now 74%, in Australia it is 76% and in Germany it is 83%.

It is not surprising that the rate at which American women entered the labour market slowed (it hit a peak in 2000). The last three decades of the twentieth century saw dramatic changes as American women surged into the organised jobs market. Since then, other countries have been catching up. Not all women need or want to work; Sweden, which had a higher proportion of working women than America in 1985, has around the same proportion now as it did then. But it seems unlikely that the proportion of women in America who want to work has settled at a rate below that of other countries.

Rather, America seems to have fallen behind because it has failed to introduce policies that make it easier for women to stay in work after they have had children. In its report the IMF says that the “striking difference” between women in European countries and America “can be attributed to the more supportive policy changes in Europe.” Its authors single out two policy areas in particular: access to affordable care for both young children and old people and paid parental leave.

The difference on paid leave is especially stark. European countries have introduced and expanded laws that require companies to give parents paid time off after the birth or adoption of a child. Employers in the EU must offer a minimum paid maternity leave of 14 weeks; many countries mandate for more than that and also provide paternity leave, thus reducing companies’ reluctance to employ women of childbearing age. America has remained almost the only developed country to have no national paid parental leave at all.

The IMF’s report emphasises the role policies like these can play in the health of economies. Big demographic changes in rich countries—fewer babies, more old people— will put greater pressure on those of working age. But it points out that almost everywhere, men aged between 25 and 54 are dropping out of the workforce, a development it attributes in part to automation. The decline is particularly marked in America, where the proportion of men in this age range in the labour market has fallen from 94% in 1985 to 88.5% today. No one knows quite why that has happened; the IMF suggests the country’s unusually high rates of incarceration as well as the opioid crisis could play a part. But it makes women’s participation in the workforce particularly important. One study found that America’s GDP would have been 11% smaller in 2012 if the hours worked by women had remained at their 1970s levels.

When will America catch up with the rest of the industrialised world and introduce national paid leave? Most Americans, both Democratic and Republican, would like it to. So do an increasing number of lawmakers, although conservative congressmen tend to consider the notion of paid leave an anti-business abomination. In 2016, Donald Trump became the first presidential nominee to tout a national paid family leave plan. His daughter Ivanka is now working with Senator Marco Rubio to try to build Republican support for it.

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