women's work

How Donald Trump’s paid maternity leave plan could make the gender wage gap even worse

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Donald Trump rolled out his paid leave plan on Tuesday night, making him the first Republican presidential nominee with a platform position on the issue. This is kind of a historic year in that regard: During the primaries, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Marco Rubio (remember that?) each rolled out their own plans, and so the 2016 election became the first in which paid leave went from the political margins to something more like a mainstream policy fight.

This is a good thing. Trump remains a deeply unqualified candidate who has built his campaign on racist demagoguing and a policy agenda that would have devastating consequences for millions of women, and disproportionately women of color, but—and this is probably the tiniest “but” ever—his speech does signal a shift in mainstream political possibilities.

“We need working mothers to be fairly compensated for their work, and to have access to affordable, quality child care for their kids,” Trump said Tuesday before outlining a plan that would allow families to deduct childcare expenses for up to four children and create six weeks of paid maternity leave.

As others have pointed out, Trump’s plan largely benefits wealthier families, does nothing to strengthen federal childcare programs for low-income families like Head Start, does not address pre-school affordability, and has nothing to say about the childcare workers currently surviving on poverty wages. It could also make the gender wage gap worse.

That’s because Trump’s plan is not a paid family leave program. It is a paid maternity leave program. This means only women can use it.

This is both reflective of Trump’s general worldview—he once bragged that he doesn’t change diapers or do walks to the park—and falls neatly into the existing branding of his daughter Ivanka’s Women Who Work campaign. (Ivanka also gave her feminist-lite lifestyle brand a subtle shoutout during her remarks last night. Synergy.)

Now the thing about creating a paid leave policy that only women can take is that it doubles down on the cultural and institutional norms that feed the gender wage gap—currently at 20% for the average woman.

“Making it just about mothers means women will always be behind,” Dr. Terri Boyer, an assistant professor at the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations and executive director of the Center for Women and Work, told me.

Women are already disproportionately more likely than men to leave the workforce to care for a new child or sick relative, and Trump’s policy, rather than challenging the gendered nature of caregiving work, basically institutionalizes it.

By creating a policy that only allows women to access minimal support if they temporarily leave the workforce to care for children or relatives, “you’re going to continue to see issues like wage gap, the lack of women leaders at the top of the organization,” Boyer explained.

This bears out internationally. European countries with generous paid parental leave programs, because women are far more likely than men to take the leave, tend to have larger wage gaps.

This means that Hillary Clinton’s plan, which offers 12 weeks of paid leave to men and women, could potentially produce a similar outcome. But Trump’s policy has this basically built-in. Under his plan, women take care of kids and sick relatives, men don’t.

“The more you make issues in the workforce about mothers, the more it becomes highly gendered,” Boyer said. “This makes the issue something that is an outlier. More than half of working women are mothers at some point in their lives, but it still becomes a subset, so we’re not talking about it as a societal issue.”

It doesn’t have to be this way, which is something that countries like Iceland and Sweden figured out a long time ago.

Sweden is a happy fourth on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, and part of that has to do with its unique paid leave policy that incentivizes—and kind of penalizes—working fathers who don’t take their portion of leave.

And according to a study published in 2010 by the Swedish Institute of Labor Market Policy Evaluation, this helped women’s earnings in the long run. The study found that a woman’s future earnings increased an average of 7% for every month of paternity leave her partner used.

Put simply, when childcare isn’t seen as women’s work, women aren’t penalized for doing it. By getting men to share in the work of raising their kids, it made childcare and family care a social issue rather than just a woman’s issue. The stigma started lifting, and wages for working parents started leveling out.

The Swedish model was kind of like rigging one aspect of patriarchy—the pattern in which when men do a thing, the thing suddenly becomes important and valuable—to work in women’s favor.

Trump’s plan offers nothing to address the broader social issues that depress women’s wages and make working parenthood such a shitshow in the first place. That’s what happens when a guy who thinks diaper-changing is women’s work tries his hand at childcare policy.