Maternity leave. Within countries like Estonia, this phrase engulfs mothers in the sense of comfort and protection. Amongst the commotion of childbirth, they can find solace in not having to worry about finding the time- or the money- to take leave for the arrival of their newborn. For some countries, even partners experience the opportunity of paid time off in the forms of paternity or parental leave. However, as with most things on a country-by-country basis, there is international variance within maternity leave. For mothers of some countries, the phrase maternity leave is not as idyllically perceived. For example, it may induce a sense of anxiety for mothers in the United States, given that the U.S. is one of the only countries in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave. Before we dissect the variances of contemporary maternity and parental leave policies among countries, however, it's worth considering how maternity leave came to be.
Let's take it back to World War I. As men were abroad fighting in the war, the world looked towards women to continue industrial production in mens' absences, which they assumed with fire in their bellies. Women began building tanks and creating bullets, supporting the efforts of the war from home; so, when the armistice set in, women of the allied countries rejoiced in how their work directly supported the successful war efforts. However, as troops returned home, these jobs were taken away from women and given back to men. Unsurprisingly, this did not go over well. It especially did not go over well considering that during this time, labor reform discussions were beginning in January of 1919- just with the caveat that women were not invited.
In countries all over the globe, the discrimination women experienced culminated into protests, demanding more from policymakers. Feminists and female trade unionists began to create agendas of what their vision of fair labor for women looked like, including equal pay for equal work, more flexible hours, and maternity leave. These meetings and initiatives lasted months until peaking in November of 1919, when more than 200 feminists and female trade unionists from North America, Europe, and Asia took to the International Labor Organization convention in Washington D.C. Of these women, 23 served as non-voting women labor-issue advisers for their country's respective delegates.
One of the significant milestones that resulted from this convention was the Maternity Protection Convention of 1919. By the end of the conference, the International Labor Organization adopted this proposal, which established fair and just conditions for working mothers. These conditions included:
These standards were a monumental achievement, ushered in through a majority consensus. Yet, at the time, not a single country met the conditions outlined by the ILO. Then began many countries’ efforts to implement policies that better aligned with the ILO conditions. Around the end of World War II, many Asian countries and a few freshly independent African countries had begun to sign into the convention. Since, a majority of the countries have accomplished some iteration of paid maternity leave, with very few (the United States is one of them) not having done so.
Some countries have also extended parental benefits beyond maternity leaves, implementing paternity leave, which refers to fathers' entitled leave time when expecting a baby. There is also parental leave that typically supplements maternity or paternity leave; although, some countries give parents more discretion about how they spend it.
So, let's embark on our Tour de Maternity Leave, surveying some of the best, average, and then lower-performing countries within maternity and parental leave.
Estonia. Is. Doing. Maternity. Right. In Estonia, mothers are given 140 days of paid maternity leave. Mothers can choose to start using the leave from 30-70 days before birth. Fathers are given 10 days before and after birth. Perhaps more exciting, after maternity or paternity leave, mom and dad can take what Estonia calls lapsehoolduspuhkus- which translates to childcare leave. Lapsehoolduspuhkus lasts 435 days after the end of maternity leave, in which they are paid 100% of both their average earnings. It's no wonder why Estonia ranks the best for maternity leave!
Like its Eastern neighbor, Hungary delivers one of the highest-rated maternity leaves. Hungary offers 24 weeks of maternity leave, which must start 4 weeks before the calculated delivery. The mother is compensated at 70% of her average wage. Additionally, one parent is entitled to parental leave until the infant reaches the age of two. This respective parent will earn 70% of what they would have been making in the meantime.
Canada offers both maternity and parental leave. Mothers, both biological and surrogate, are entitled to up to 15 weeks of maternity leave. Mothers can utilize this up to 12 weeks before the anticipated birth or up to 17 weeks post-birth. Canada also offers parental leave that both parents can share in two forms: standard and extended. Standard parental leave encapsulates a maximum of 35 weeks of being compensated at 55% of the parents' weekly average salary. Extended parental leave gives parents 61 weeks of parental leave at 33% of the parents' average weekly wage.
In Italy, mothers are entitled to five months of maternity leave at a compensation rate of 80% of their average salary. Paternity leave is 7 days at a 100% rate of their average salary. As for parental leave, parents who have 11 months of parental leave are paid at 30% of their average wage. This time can be allocated, under specific guidelines, until the child reaches 8 years of age. If parents decide they do not want to "cash in" their parental leave time, they can instead ask for vouchers that would cover the cost of childcare, either private or public, for up to six months.
American moms, this one is going to sting. The United States guarantees 0 paid days of paid maternity leave, 0 days of paid paternity leave, and- you guessed it- 0 days of paid parental leave. It is one of the only countries in the World not to offer mandated paid maternity leave. Additionally, it is the only country of the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, to not do so. The Family and Medical Leave Act does, however, require 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave for mothers.
Papua New Guinea
An accompanying outlier with the United States, Papua New Guinea offers 0 days of paid maternity leave. Its unpaid maternity leave starts as necessary hospitalization requires and then lasts for six weeks post-delivery. Papua New Guinea does surprisingly pay for time spent breastfeeding- but that is certainly not making up for their lack of paid maternity leave.
Imagine what those feminists of the Maternity Protection Convention of 1919 would be saying looking at this list. Of course, Estonia would take the cake with 435 days of parental leave. But, the U.S. would inevitably make a good chunk of the conversation for its zero days of paid maternity or parental leave. It's been over a century since the convention. Maternity leave is no longer considered a privilege for many countries but a right; now, the conversation has transcended to more comprehensive care like paternity or parental leave.
With the ushering in of a new administration, though, things are looking up, American moms. The Biden administration announced in April of 2021 the American Families Plan, which would invest in creating comparable maternal and family leave programs within the U.S. If you’re looking for something more tangible in the meantime, you can look towards some independent companies taking on the mission of creating their own supportive maternity leave policies. Netflix, for instance, offers both mothers and fathers 52 weeks of parental leave for either the birth or adoption of their new child, and we expect that other companies will follow suit.
So, as we conclude our Tour de Maternity Leave, let us not lose hope. The fight is still going strong in the U.S. to wrestle our way to reaching the ILO standards of 1919.