Sexism and Maternity Leave Around the World

A new study shows a reverse correlation between how tolerant a country is of gender discrimination and how generous its maternity leave policies are.

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Women in Sweden receive more than a year of maternity leave (or their husbands can receive over a year of paternity leave, if that's what the parents of the newborn prefer). In the Philippines, maternity leave lasts for 60 days, which is also the federally mandated minimum here in the United States. In Saudi Arabia, where women are barred from driving and will only be able to vote for the first time in 2015, new mothers are entitled to 10 weeks of maternity leave.

Why? That's what the governments of those countries have decided. I understand that, but why? Is it because Swedes love big government? Is it because fertility rates in Europe are low enough as it is, and desperate measures are in order? Or is it because people in different countries have different levels of tolerance for gender-based discrimination?

In a recent article in the Journal of Law and Economics economists Yehonatan Givati of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ugo Troiano of the University of Michigan attempt to figure out how important the latter factor is. Their reasoning is as follows: maternity leave is costly to employers, so when the government mandates long periods of maternity leave, women end up getting paid less. But! For that to happen, society has to tolerate large gaps in pay between men and women. A society that has a low tolerance for pay gaps like that won't let that happen. In such a society, long mandated periods of maternity leave won't reduce women's salaries nearly as much as in a society that doesn't care much about gender discrimination – say, a society in which female genital mutilation is common practice. And as a consequence, it should become more attractive to enact longer mandatory maternity leaves.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Givati and Troiano find that this is indeed the case: societies that feel more strongly that men should receive no preferential treatment over women in the marketplace also grant women longer stays at home after childbirth. They derive attitudes toward men and women in the workplace from the World Values Survey: For every percentage point of respondents in that survey that say that men should, indeed, receive preferential treatment, the length of maternity leave decreases by about a day and a half. Well, that makes sense.

One potential problem with this finding, though, is that respondents may just be saying what they believe is socially acceptable: that the public policies in place drive their answers, thereby creating the fake impression that is culture that drives policy instead of the other way around. To make sure that is not the case, Givati and Troiano come up with a cultural driver of gender attitudes that (long) predates maternity leave mandates. Cunning linguists that they are, they collected data on the gender attitudes intrinsic in each country's main language: how many personal pronouns are different for men and women? That is, how many pronouns are like he/she instead of we? In English, he/she is the only “discriminatory” example, but in Spanish, for example, nosotros/nosotras is one in addition to él/ella. It turns out that this measure of linguistic gender discrimination does a pretty good job predicting current-day gender attitudes, and, as a consequence, current-day maternity leave mandates.

This is bad news for utopians everywhere: long-standing cultural traits cannot just be legislated away, but impact today's attitudes, preferences and policy views. The good news for those committed to equal opportunities for women in the work place? Many other factors play a role too, and Givati and Troiano's estimates suggest that attitudes toward gender discrimination can explain at best 15 percent of the variation in maternity leave legislation in place. Factors like the number of female elected officials and a country's prosperity are certainly not to be counted out, and probably an effective short-cut toward more generous maternity benefits.

Stan Veuger is an economist at the American Enterprise Institute.

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