As we approach April 2, Equal Pay Day, the day in 2019 when women’s average earnings would finally equal the 2018 earnings of an average man, it is worth considering the important role paid medical and family leave might play in reducing the persistent earnings gap between men and women. 

Nearly two dozen states are expected to consider some form of paid family leave this year.  These programs offer wage replacement and, in some cases, job protection for workers who need to take time away from work to care for themselves or family members. "Safe time," time away from work to insure the safety of victims of domestic violence, is included in some states. Six states and the District of Columbia have already enacted some form of paid family leave. The benefits and costs of these programs are outlined in a report I recently published with University of Denver colleagues Jennifer Greenfield and Paula Cole.

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The opportunity to address the persistence of gender pay gaps in the United States is one important outcome of implementing paid family leave. Consider how we measure the "pay gap." In 2017, the average woman working full time earned 80.5 percent of the earnings of the average full-time working man. Although we often refer to this number as the pay gap. It is really the difference between what men and women earn. To eliminate that gap, we need a better understanding of what creates the difference in the average earnings of full-time working men and women. 

Wages clearly matter. But so, too, do the hours that men and women are scheduled to work. Even small differences in the number of hours that one is assigned to work can impact weekly earnings, particularly so for low-wage workers. Research on the earnings gap also finds that it is the differences in the jobs that men and women hold that explains a significant portion of the earnings gap. Overall, women are more likely to work in jobs that pay less.  

Another critical factor that matters is differences in the overall time men and women spend in the workforce and the penalties associated with time away from work. Taking a career view of earnings gaps tells a disturbing tale. The Institute for Women's Policy Research explains that the wage gap nearly doubles when one takes a look at earnings over a 15 year period. Taking time out of the labor force is costly for everyone, but even more costly for women than men. Since women continue to shoulder more of the burdens of caregiving, they also more often take unpaid time away from work. For the 40 percent of families where women are breadwinners or co-breadwinners, the long-term earnings gap due to the costs of unpaid leave can be consequential for the economic security of their families.

Paid leave policies that have already shown to be effective at bolstering women's labor force attachment and keeping women on track are a critical strategy in ongoing efforts to narrow the gender wage gap and strengthening families. 

The equity promise of paid medical and family leave may be even more significant for women of color. The earnings gaps between women of color and white men are much greater than the gaps between white women and white men. Lower income families, disproportionately families of color, are at greater risk for poor health outcomes. Higher rates of infant mortality and  higher rates of diabetes, are  just two examples of how the burdens of caregiving weigh even more heavily on women of color and their families.  

At some point, everyone will need time away from work to care for oneself, to care for a newborn or a sick relative. Research consistently shows that paid family and medical leave that provides wage replacement and stability of employment when workers are faced with caregiving obligations is good for families, good for business, and good for the economy. It just might have the added impact of closing that persistent gender earnings gap.

 Nancy Reichman is Professor of Sociology and Criminology and Director of Research for the Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver.  Her published research over the past twenty years has examined the issue of gender equity at work.  She is a member of the Denver Women’s Commission and previously chaired the Colorado Pay Equity Commission.