When Donald Trump unveiled his maternity leave and childcare plan this month with daughter Ivanka by his side, no doubt they were prepared for pushback. Conservatives have generally resisted government-crafted family leave policies, and the left is generally not happy unless it is a sweeping government mandate. Senator Marco Rubio had already taken a go at tackling parental leave in the Republican primary, only to get attacked from both sides. But no doubt the Trumps—Ivanka in particular—were surprised by one focus of the criticism their proposal received: its emphasis on women.
Unlike the plan proposed by Secretary Hillary Clinton and other plans that have been proposed in the past, Trump’s plan is particularly woman-oriented. The opening sentence of the factsheet for his plan mentions only women, and women are explicitly singled out throughout. The concluding section is entitled, “The Trump plan promotes economic freedom for women.”
His proposed leave benefits extend only to women who have given birth; his plan would guarantee six weeks of paid maternity leave for new moms under a certain income bracket. Furthermore, his plan extends childcare cost deductions to stay-at-home parents, who are overwhelmingly women—about two-thirds of them, actually. Furthermore, Pew has found that women are increasingly gravitating towards, not away from, the choice to stay home with young children. This is consistent with its other findings that show women are clearly more oriented towards a work and life arrangement that affords them more time at home with their children, when financially feasible.
The plan’s emphasis on women became the surprise focus of the loudest strand of criticism. Cecile Richards penned a critique for Cosmopolitan, writing:
His half-baked proposal on maternity leave only applies to women who have given birth. This proposal, like his whole campaign, leaves out an entire swath of people in America who don’t fit his narrow version of what makes a family. It doesn't respect the needs of fathers, or adoptive or fostering parents, and continues the myth of a 1950s world where women take care of children and men work.
Writing for The Nation, Joan Walsh called his plan “ridiculously regressive” for not including fathers in the paid leave portion and said, “Families with stay-at-home mothers would also be eligible for some form of the credit, a sop to the conservative right.” The Huffington Post griped that his plan was his “biggest insult to women yet” and only served to confirm his “antiquated, sexist worldview.”
Ivanka Trump was clearly caught off-guard by pushback on this aspect of the plan, cutting short what ABC News called a “surprisingly testy exchange” with Cosmopolitan magazine about why the paid leave doesn’t extend to others like adoptive dads or include any kind of paternity leave. “The original intention of the plan is to help mothers in recovery in the immediate aftermath of childbirth,” she said before ending the interview with reporter Prachi Gupta. Later, she tweeted at Cosmo, “your readers do & should care about issues impacting women & children. Keep the focus where it belongs—advocating change.”
Keeping the focus on women, however, is an increasingly difficult task in a society constantly pressing for all things gender-neutral. Parental leave is the latest victim of a society that denies sex differences, with it becoming nearly impossible to discuss any kind of leave for women without discussing an equal benefit for men, even if this ultimately hurts women.
A recent study found that gender-neutral parental leave policies at universities, for example, wound up backfiring on female economic professors. The study, titled “Equal but Inequitable,” found that the “gender-neutral policies” led to “substantially reduced female tenure rates while substantially increasing male tenure rates." The study noted that this phenomenon can be seen in numerous fields like law and medicine that are trying to retain women but offering the same post-birth benefits to moms and dads. In this particular study, implementing gender-neutral parental leave policies increased a man’s chance of attaining tenure as an economics professor by 19 percentage points, while decreasing a woman’s odds by 22 percentage points.
The reason is not complicated. Women do exponentially more work during childbearing and the early months that follow birth. If they are given the same amount of time off as a man who has done none of that, they are ultimately at a disadvantage.
“[F]athers usually receive the same benefits without bearing anything close to the same burden,” wrote one University of Michigan economist for The New York Times. “Given this asymmetry, it’s little wonder some recently instituted benefits have given men an advantage."
Regardless of what you think of The Donald and regardless of what you think of government involvement in incentivizing and subsidizing paid parental leave and childcare, any plan designed to help parents and families should not further disadvantage women. Rather, the plans should correct for the natural hindrances women experience as a result of childbearing, delivery, and breastfeeding. And women who find that their post-birth preference is to focus on childrearing should not be penalized by any new policy proposals.
Family is not a gender-neutral enterprise. Despite advances in assisted reproductive technology, the essential human act of carrying a new human life into the world is still one borne entirely by women. And even in today’s world of endless choice for women, countless women continue to choose to make childrearing their primary work. Policies meant to address the costs associated with bearing and raising children should always begin with the sex that actually does the most work: women.