How family-friendly policies can hurt women's careers

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Family-friendly policies are typically seen as a way to increase women's participation in the workforce, largely because they help women balance work and parenting.

But a growing body of research suggests that these policies can sometimes backfire and end up hurting women's professional prospects in the long run.

One example of this phenomenon is the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993 in the US. According to new unpublished research from Mallika Thomas, who will be an assistant professor of economics at Cornell University, women hired after the enactment of the FMLA were 5% more likely to remain employed than women hired before. The catch? Women hired afterward were also 8% less likely to be promoted.

The likelihood of promotions decreased only among women under 40, and the gender gap in promotions was widest in age groups where women had the highest chance of having a child.

Thomas believes this is because companies are hesitant to invest resources in the careers of women who they believe are likely to leave to raise families. In fact, she found that the gender gap in promotions was largest in firms with the highest cost of training.

"The problem ends up being that all women, even those who do not anticipate having children or cutting back in hours, may be penalized," she told The New York Times.

Thomas' findings align with research on other parts of the world as well. Cornell economists studied 22 countries and found that family-friendly policies (including long maternity leaves and part-time work protections) in Europe did help more women join the workforce. But those women were more likely to assume low-level positions and were less likely to be managers.

As Claire Cain Miller at The Times suggests, one solution to this problem might be to make family-friendly policies gender neutral. That way, men and women would be encouraged to take time off after the birth of a child, and employers would be less likely to unfairly discriminate against women.

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