Michelle Obama on Work-Life Balance

The New York Times online opinion page today ran a piece called “Michelle Obama’s Balancing Act” about Mrs. Obama’s decision to champion the issue of work-life balance. One way the First Lady might use her bully pulpit is to bring to the attention of American businesses, workers and policy-makers the ways in which other countries help moms and dads balance their jobs at home and their jobs at work.

Two of the last century’s most far-reaching socioeconomic transformations have been the wholesale entry of women into the paid workforce and a sharp increase in single motherhood. Yet our policies, workplaces, social institutions, and societal expectations have been slow to adapt to the altered landscape. As a consequence, we have millions of overstretched, overstressed families cobbling together care-giving crazy-quilts while still trying to pay the bills. Our peer countries have faced similar social transformations, and they have responded with policies to help.  Some examples:

• Today the U.S. is in the company of Swaziland, Liberia, and Papua New Guinea as one of only four countries on the planet with no federally mandated paid maternity leave. [1]
• Sixty-six countries guarantee paid paternity leave. Ninety-eight countries have fourteen or more weeks of paid leave for mothers, 31 have fourteen or more weeks of paid leave for men as well.
• At least 107 countries protect the right to breastfeed during the workday, with 73 offering paid breaks. This right is not guaranteed in the United States.
• One hundred thirty-seven countries mandate annual paid leave. U.S. firms are not required to provide paid vacation time.
• One hundred forty-five countries have paid sick leave for short- or long-term illness, with 136 having at least one week annually, and 81 allowing at least twenty-six weeks or until recovery. Sick leave is offered in the United States through the Family and Medical Leave Act, but it is unpaid and does not cover all workers. [2]

Compared to our peer nations and even many developing countries, we are in the dark ages on this one.


[1]  Heymann, Earle, Hayes, “The Work, Family and Equity Index.”
[2]  Ibid