Andrew Sullivan uses the phrase “the taboo topic of nature” when writing about men’s natural sexual preferences and proclivities. I’ll use it when writing about women’s natural maternal preferences and proclivities – a topic that’s equally taboo. It’s taboo, for example, to suggest that a woman’s being a mother (especially of babies and young children) interferes with a woman’s being a leader. Or even that when it comes to the exercise of leadership, being a parent intrudes more on women than it does on men.
The suggestion that parenting is the same for women as it is for men is ludicrous. It flies in the face of everything we know about animal behavior. It flies in the face of everything we know about human behavior. And it flies in the face of everything we know about physiology, specifically the difference between the male body, which cannot carry or feed the baby, and the female body, which can, and does, first carry the baby and then feed it.
If being a mother is even remotely responsible for why women don’t lead – that is, for why women lead only in stubbornly small numbers – then nothing would be as important to closing the leadership gap as providing mothers with more help caring for their young. However, for American mothers especially, it’s still a steep hill to climb.
There are two obvious problems. The first is that the United States remains the only one among industrialized countries not to mandate paid parental leave. To be sure, more employers are starting to provide parental leave benefits, and more employers are expanding the leave benefits they already have.
This, however, raises the second problem. Research shows that mothers who take parental leave have better mental and physical health, and that their babies do as well. But, it’s not at all clear that taking time off from work is professionally advantageous, particularly if you’re on the leadership track. In other words, among all but the most enlightened employers, parental leave, especially if it’s relatively extensive, can and often does interfere with professional advancement.
There are reasons why even in the most enlightened countries and cultures on the planet the discrepancies between men and women in this regard remain huge. For example, Swedish couples receive 480 days of paid (at about 80%) parental leave. But while parents are encouraged to split their time off from work as equally as possible, it doesn’t happen. Fathers receive only about 27 percent of parental benefits; mothers receive the rest, about 73 percent.
Ask yourself why this is. Then ask yourself whether paying parents to quit the workplace for protracted periods of time is the best answer to a question far knottier than it seems – especially when it devolves around women and leadership.