To encourage all nations to create the conditions for new work norms to flourish that do not penalize workers with caring responsibilities, countries should set a new target of reducing the motherhood pay penalty by 50% by 2020 and eliminating it by 2030. The primary strategy to achieve this goal should be based on creating what Harvard economist Claudia Goldin calls “temporal flexibility” in employment, by allowing workers with caring responsibilities flexibility in three fundamental areas – when they work, where they work and how they work. Flexibility should be at its most elastic when caring responsibilities peak over the lifecycle (e.g. following the birth of a child or when aging parents become ill) and extended family leave should be standard practice during these periods. It should also be possible for employees to work during these intensive leave periods, if they choose, with control over their hours and location of work, and the use of technology (e.g. video conferencing in lieu of travel). At all other times, there should be negotiated access for workers with family responsibilities to flexible weekly work hours, location and method (e.g. use of technology, job sharing) of work. These flexible work arrangements should be gender-blind, meaning female and male employees can take equal advantage of them.
As governments, employers and employees all reap the benefits of increased worker flexibility, the costs of financing flexibility should be shared. Governments can lead the way by introducing best practice flexibility programs to their large workforces. They can also subsidize the costs of greater flexibility by providing quality, affordable childcare (0-5 years) and by synchronizing school hours with work hours throughout the day (e.g. by providing breakfast, afterschool and occasional evening care) and the year (e.g. by providing all-Summer educational programs). Governments could also offset any increased costs to employers and workers through the tax and/or benefit system (e.g. by tax breaks, or conditional cash transfers). Employers could undertake cost-benefit analyses of introducing more flexible policies to determine the right mix of flexibility and finance any costs from profits or insurance schemes. Workers could contribute to the increased costs of flexibility by saving early in their careers and/or by trading wage increases for greater workplace flexibility. As low income families with dependent children currently incur a disproportionate share of the costs of the current system and have limited ability to pay for flexibility, governments and employers should prioritize any subsidies to them.
Finally, companies that introduce transformative policies, products and/or services enabling mothers to fully engage in the labor market should be celebrated. The world’s largest food and beverage company, Nestlé, recently announced 14 weeks of paid parental leave (up from six weeks) for 339,000 employees spread across 197 countries, with an option for parents to take an additional 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Multinationals Vodafone, Johnson & Johnson and Blackstone have also recently introduced new family-friendly policies and national corporate leaders like Telstra in Australia have totally transformed the workplace by offering all workers access to their “All Roles Flex” policy. Companies that offer new products or services that dramatically reduce household care burdens should also be celebrated including online retailers and delivery companies that dramatically reduce time spent shopping (e.g. amazon.com), cleaning/caring (e.g. care.com), and communicating with family members (e.g. apple.com). Governments could introduce new initiatives to ensure that these new products and services are available to low income families.
The developed countries that have introduced more flexible workplace policies since 1990 (e.g. Norway, Sweden and Finland) all now enjoy higher female workforce participation compared to those where masculine work norms still dominate (e.g. US, Germany, Japan, Italy and Spain). A recent study by Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn found that lack of “family-friendly” policies including parental leave and part-time work entitlements explains 30% of the relative decrease in US women’s labor force participation in recent years. They caution however, that these policies also appear to encourage part-time work and employment in lower level positions and that US women are more likely to have full time jobs and to work as managers or professionals. It is critically important that more flexible work policies are designed to strengthen mothers’ long-term engagement with the labor market rather than further undermine it. Trade-offs need to be very carefully navigated.