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NYT: Lack of 'Family-Friendly' U.S. Policies Linked to Decline in Women's Workforce Participation

NYT: Lack of 'Family-Friendly' U.S. Policies Linked to Decline in Women's Workforce Participation

December 15, 2014 — A relative lack of "family-friendly" policies in the U.S. compared with many European countries has contributed to a decline in labor force participation among U.S. women, the New York Times' "The Upshot" reports.

Family Leave Policies, Workforce Participation in U.S. vs. Europe

According to "The Upshot," the labor force participation rate for U.S. women ages 25 to 54 has declined since its 1999 high of 74% to its current rate of 69%. Meanwhile, several other developed countries -- including France, Germany and Switzerland -- have since eclipsed the U.S. in their rate of labor force participation for women in that age range.

The changes in labor force participation have also coincided with expanded family friendly national legislation in many European countries since 1990. For example, several European countries have implemented policies further subsidizing child care, allowing workers to move to part-time schedules and barring employers from discriminating against part-time workers. In addition, European countries already had paid parental leave policies in place.

By contrast, the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (PL 103-3), which allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid family and medical leave annually, "was the last major piece of family-friendly federal legislation" passed in the U.S., according to "The Upshot."

According to a study by Cornell University's Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, almost 33% of the relative decrease in the labor-force participation rate among women in the U.S. compared with those in Europe can be attributed to the expansion of family friendly policies there and the dearth of such policies in the U.S.

However, their study also found that while U.S. men and women were just as likely to be managers at their companies, women were managers at about half the rate of men in European countries. According to the "Upshot," the European policies can limit some women's opportunities to advance and effectively keep them in part-time jobs that have lower pay.

Related Survey Findings

Meanwhile, a recent Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation survey of U.S. nonworking adults ages 25 to 54 found that 61% of female respondents said they were not working because of family reasons, compared with 37% of male respondents.

According to "The Upshot," balancing employment and raising a family is particularly difficult for lower-income women and those who received less education. The survey found that 77% of U.S. women who were not working did not graduate from college, 17% did not finish high school and only 7% have a graduate degree. The survey also found that women, particularly those with children at home, were less likely than men to say that they would take a job with significant tradeoffs for their lives and their families' lives, such as moving to another city or working nonstandard hours.

In addition, nearly 75% of survey respondents who identified as homemakers and said they had not sought out employment in the past year said they might attempt to return to the workforce for a job that provided flexible hours and the ability to work from home. However, 67% of such respondents said they would probably be in the workforce in five years. According to "The Upshot," that aligns with data from Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who found that many U.S. women are choosing to leave the workforce once they have children and then rejoin the workforce when their children are older (Cain Miller/Alderman, "The Upshot," New York Times, 12/12).