Note: This article is also available in Romanian.
One of the forms of sex discrimination that many governments engage in is having different laws for maternity and paternity leave. Various countries have laws that entitle female employees who become mothers to several weeks or months of paid maternal leave as well as months or even years of unpaid leave in which the woman’s job must be reserved. Where paternity leave exists at all, it is usually much shorter than maternity leave.
This is typically seen as discrimination in favour of women and against men. However, this is far from obvious. In this article, I want to argue that the right to maternity leave is a double-edged sword that probably harms women more than it helps them and that it is in fact women (and in particular women who don’t want to have children) who are being discriminated against, while men can count themselves lucky not to be burdened with this right (or at least not to the same extent).
How can this be? Shouldn’t it always be to one’s advantage to have a particular right, especially when one need not exercise it? After all, women aren’t forced to take maternity leave. Consider a different case: suppose a new law were passed that granted you immunity from having to keep your contracts. You would be able to break any contract at will without having to suffer any legal consequences. At first, this sounds like a fantastic thing. And indeed, it would be in the short run. If you have any debts, you can stop paying them. If you’ve made some agreement that is no longer in your best interest, you can break it. The long-run consequences, on the other hand, will be dire. Since other people know about the new law, no one will be willing to make contracts with you any longer. Banks will not loan you money, you won’t be able to use credit cards, no one will be willing to enter into business dealings with you, employers will be extremely reluctant to hire you.
Rights are always rights against other people. They make it illegal for other people to do or to fail to do certain things to you. The more rights you have, the more other people will be constrained in their behaviour toward you and the less eager they will be to deal with you. This is a problem when you want to get people to hire you.
Businesses are not charities. They generally don’t hire people out of goodwill but because they believe they can make a profit from doing so. To get an employer to hire you, you need to convince him that you will produce more for him than you will cost him. This cost is not just the wage, but also training, equipment, benefits such as retirement plans or health insurance, taxes, and so on. And if you’re a woman of a certain age, this list also includes the expected costs of maternity leave—the granting of paid leave, the cost of having to find and train a substitute who may need to be dismissed when you return a few years later, your reduced productivity as you get back into the grove after years of absence, etc.
Hence, the existence of the right to maternal leave makes employers less eager to hire women. Women cannot renounce their right to maternity leave, even if they do not want to have it. They need to find some other way of decreasing their cost to prospective employers. In practice, this usually means accepting a lower wage. Thus, feminist-inspired maternity leave laws are at least in part responsible for the dreaded wage gap, which feminists so like to bemoan.
So we’ve now established that women pay a price for maternity leave. This should hardly be surprising. After all, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. The question now becomes: Is this particular lunch worth the cost? It cannot be denied that maternal leave does provide a benefit to many women, but how do we quantify that benefit? The standard economic approach to determine the value of a good or service is to see how much people are willing to pay for it. At first glance, this approach seems unsuitable for this problem; after all, women don’t negotiate maternity leave with their employers (in which case one could see how much women are willing to give up for having maternity leave); they are forced to have this right.
But this approach yields us strong indirect evidence against maternity leave being worth the cost: it is rare for employers and employees voluntarily to agree to more generous maternity leave rules than the ones the law mandates, even though that would be possible. If maternity leave were valued very highly by women, then we should expect some of them to be willing to accept a lower wage to get such provisions.
The central issue is this: If maternity leave is not worth the cost, then the law is harmful. If maternity leave is worth the cost, we should expect to see it offered on the labour market voluntarily, so a law is not needed. Employers generally don’t care much for the makeup of an employee’s cost. It makes little difference to them whether a dollar is spent on wages, health insurance, improving workplace safety, providing free snacks to employees, or granting maternity leave. What they care about is the difference between revenue and costs. But employees do care about this composition. They have definite preferences in regard to the trade-offs between these expenditures. Employers in turn have the incentive to offer compensation packages that closely resemble the composition desired by actual or potential employees because in doing so, they can get away with a lower overall cost than if the composition is farther from the desired one.
This is why it is in general a good idea to let employers and employees freely negotiate their contracts. Restricting that freedom will often result in them making suboptimal contracts.
Another aspect of maternity leave is its redistributive effect. Since employers do not know which women will become pregnant in the future (and in many countries it is even illegal to try to learn the family plans of a prospective employee), they will offer lower wages to female applicants who are of child-bearing age. So women who never become mothers pay a price for a right they will never use while women who go on maternity leave several times are subsidized by their less maternally inclined sisters. I personally regard this as unjust; others may disagree. But even if we assume for the sake of argument that such a redistribution is desirable, this is still not a good reason for maternity leave. If redistribution is the goal, then a more efficient way of going about it would be to have slightly higher taxes for child-less women (or child-less people in general) and to directly give money to working mothers. These mothers can then decide for themselves if they want to pocket that money or use it to compensate for the lower wages they had to accept to get an employer to agree to grant them a right to maternal leave.
And it is not just working women who are worse off because of maternity leave. Employers also suffer from this policy. Because the law forces them to offer suboptimal compensation packages to female job applicants, they will have to spend more on them than they otherwise would to get them to accept the job. No matter how exactly employers react to this—whether they will spend more on labour or hire fewer workers—less will be produced. This means less goods available for consumers to buy, which means higher prices. Ultimately, everyone in the economy is adversely affected.
Let me now address some likely objections to the arguments made above. The first objection is that paying women less because of expected costs of maternity leave is an unlawful form of discrimination and that it is therefore unlikely that most employers would resort to such measures.
While it is true that such discrimination is illegal in many countries, such laws are difficult to enforce. After all, they are laws that prohibit not a certain action per se, but instead prohibit taking it for a certain reason. Since judges and jurors haven’t yet managed the feat of mind-reading, they do not know why an employer has hired or failed to hire a certain applicant or why it offered the wage it did. After all, we are not talking about huge differences here. The expected costs of granting maternity leave will only consume a small fraction of an employee’s potential wage.
Moreover, the arguments presented above don’t even require employers to consciously discriminate against women or to be aware that such discrimination is prudent and profitable. It works simply through the laws of supply and demand, which have determined prices long before the first coherent economic theories were formed. Laws mandating the right to maternity leave make female labour more expensive. This means there is now a profit to be gained from reducing one’s demand for female labour (compared with what it would have been without maternity leave), and losses loom for firms who keep demanding female labour at the same rate. The competitive market process will shift resources from the latter group to the former. The result is an overall lower demand for female labour, resulting in a lower price, i.e., lower wages.
The second likely objection is that my arguments so far have only considered the interests of women, not those of children. From this perspective, the goal of maternity leave is not to benefit women but rather to ensure that children will be optimally taken care of by their mothers, at least in their first years. Thus, even if maternity leave is generally bad for women, it might be good for their children.
Of course, women could still interrupt their careers for a few months or years to be full-time mothers in the absence of maternity leave, but given that they wouldn’t have a guaranteed job waiting for them, fewer would choose that route. In a world without maternity leave, more women would choose to continue working, but on the other hand, more women would choose to quit working altogether or interrupt their careers for a longer time. So it’s not at all clear whether this would induce women to take care of their children more or less. And given that maternity leave makes society as a whole poorer, this also means fewer resources available to spend on giving children the best care, education, nutrition, health care, and so on. Hence, it’s difficult to see how maternity leave laws could on net make children better off.
So if maternity leave is so terrible, why are not just feminists but the vast majority of people in favour of this policy? I suspect the main reason is that people want to help women, especially mothers, and maternity leave laws sound as if they do that. Supporting such a policy is emotionally satisfying, while opposing it is much more difficult from an emotional standpoint. Moreover, the good arguments against maternity leave are much harder to understand than the bad arguments for it. They require careful deliberation and certainly won’t fit on a bumper sticker. Changing one’s opinion on maternity leave has practically no influence on whether the society one lives in adopts this policy, so there isn’t any real incentive for investing the time and the mental and emotional energy needed for making an informed and rational decision about this issue. In case you are interested, I’ve written before about this phenomenon, which has been termed “rational irrationality.”
Where does this leave us as supporters of men’s rights? The right to paternal leave is bad for men for exactly the same reasons that maternal leave is bad for women. Thus, the worst thing we could do is to demand that men be given the same rights to parental leave that women currently have. Ideally, all laws mandating paternal leave should be eliminated, but given the large popular support for maternal leave, this is unlikely to happen. Nor do I think it would be a particularly good use of our resources to spend a serious effort to change the public’s mind on this topic. What I advise instead is to do nothing more than resist the adoption of new laws mandating paternal leave. In this case, ironically, the very fact that people generally care less about the welfare of men is actually helping us.
 It doesn’t follow from this that women who take advantage of maternity leave benefit from its existence. Some of them would be better off not having maternity leave and getting a higher salary, but they take maternity leave anyway because even though they prefer a higher salary with no maternity leave to a lower salary with maternity leave, they nevertheless prefer a lower salary with maternity leave to a lower salary without maternity leave.
 Even though the overall compensation package is higher, the wage will still be lower than it would otherwise be. In other words, the cost increase through providing maternity leave is higher than the cost decrease through paying lower wages.
 All of this is a ceteris paribus analysis; i.e., we are holding all other things equal. We are comparing the present situation with one that is identical in all respects except for not having maternity leave. So when I say that women have lower wages, I’m not comparing women’s wages with men’s wages, with the wages of women too old to bear children, or with women in the past or in other countries without maternity leave. We are talking here strictly about comparing women’s actual wages with those they would have if maternal leave didn’t exist and everything else stayed the same.