Meghan McCain and the politics of personal experience
The conservative host's recent endorsement of paid family leave demonstrates the Republican party's view that issues aren't valid until they've felt them first-hand.
In 2014, the Institute of Women's Policy Research published a study that found paid family leave offers economic security and gives employees the peace of mind that they're safe from losing their job. The study cited research that shows paid family leave has a positive effect on infant and maternal health, reducing rates of infant mortality and stress and depression for mothers. (The United States has the highest infant mortality rate out of 28 wealthy countries in the world, coming in at 6.1 for every 1,000 births.) And it helps employers because it can increase employee morale, productivity, and labor force attachment once new parents (particularly mothers) return to work. But according to Healthline, 40 percent of women don’t qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which grants 12 weeks of protected unpaid job leave at the federal level and only 12 percent of women in the private sector have access to any sort of paid maternity leave. (One in four women are forced to return to work within two weeks of giving birth to support their families.)
Those figures are proof that we've got a lot of work to do as a nation to increase awareness for an issue that America is uniquely behind on. (Paid leave is guaranteed in 178 countries; the United States is the only high-income country to not offer paid maternity leave on a federal level.) And the cause got an unexpected ally this week when Meghan McCain, the resident conservative voice on ABC's The View expressed support for federal parental leave after experiencing postpartum complications. "I started getting more and more angry that conservatives, given that we are the party of family values — and that everything about our ideology stems from the nucleus of the family — are leaving women in this country without the capacity and ability, unless you have an employer that allows you to, to take care of your child [and] to heal physically, which is something that needs to happen."
McCain's endorsement demonstrates the empathy gap that exists within the Republican party on issues that people without her megaphone have been in need of for decades. "When it comes to misjudging other people’s perspective, the empathy gap can cause someone who feels safe to struggle to imagine the perspective of someone who feels scared," Itamar Shatz wrote for Effectiviology. Perhaps it's why men who will never have to decide whether or not to keep or terminate a pregnancy feel empowered to tell women what they can do with their bodies. Or why white people require visual evidence and perfect victims to acknowledge racism when the personal experiences of Black Americans should be enough. Or why we've spent billions on an opioid crisis that's as devastating to families in the midwest as the crack epidemic was to families who looked like mine in the '80s.
For the record, I agree with McCain. Less than a month after I started this newsletter, I wrote an essay in support of a workforce in which paid family leave — including paternity leave — is the rule, not the exception. Creativity is compromised when creators, especially women, feel disempowered to fully focus their time and attention on their pregnancy, the birth or adoption of a child, recovering from a serious illness, or caring for a seriously ill family member. I'm glad she's well and is now speaking up. "Maybe it takes personal experience to get on board," she said during her monologue. But equity and justice shouldn't require personal experience because it's impossible for our identities to capture the breadth of any given person. I'll digress here because paid family leave is bigger than one person. And if it's, as Monica Hesse wrote for The Washington Post, "good for families, good for children and good for working parents," then it may be helpful to discuss why the benefit is so elusive?
The answer is as simple as it is senseless: Conservatives and small businesses think it's too expensive. In the aforementioned 2019 essay I wrote on paid family leave, I excerpted text from a Harvard Business Review article by Karen Firestone, CEO of Aureus Asset Management, a Boston-based wealth advisory firm, who wrote that “the costs of being inclusive and pursuing an egalitarian ideal are more immediately tangible than the benefits” for independent creative businesses. Conservative political commentator George Will added this in an article for The National Review: "Paid family leave, which will arrive in an era of trillion-dollar deficits, will demonstrate that limited-government conservatism has become a persuasion without a party."
But according to research cited by Democratic New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who co-sponsored legislation in February 2019 that would ensure that workers can take up to 12 weeks of paid leave for a pregnancy, the birth or adoption of a child, recovery from a serious illness, or to care for a seriously ill family member, recent studies have shown that the lack of access to paid family and medical leave costs nearly $21 billion that otherwise could be spent on housing, child care, food, education, or other day-to-day items.
There are also institutional realities that deter women from taking paid leave even when it's available. Women typically take longer breaks than men, primarily for taking care of children and aging family members. To that end, PayScale reports that women who take a break for 12 months or longer experienced an average wage penalty of 7.3 percent relative to a similar worker who didn’t take a break. That’s a time-off penalty of more than $7 for every $100 earned. And when women take longer leaves than men, it also widens the “opportunity gap,” PayScale’s term for the phenomenon in which “women are less likely to hold higher-level, high-paying jobs compared to men. Women also tend to move up the career ladder at a slower pace than men.” The irony is that 74 percent of men and 75 percent of women start their careers as individual contributors (employees who don’t manage people). But a smaller proportion of women reach the manager/supervisor level or higher by the middle of their career. By mid-career, 47 percent of men between the age of 30 to 44 are managers or higher, while only 40 percent of women reach this level. By age 45-plus, 57 percent of men are managers or higher, while only 41 percent of women reach this level. And few women ever make their way to C-suite. By late career (age 45+), eight percent of men have risen to an executive-level position, compared to three percent of women. The paid-leave gender discrepancy, as I wrote in 2019, is the variable here.
But with Democratic control of the White House, the House and the Senate (OMG, it feels amazing to write those words!), progress may soon be imminent. President-elect Joe Biden supports the 12 weeks of paid leave proposed in Sen. Gillibrand's bill. And Republicans like Sens. Marco Rubio and Joni Ernst have expressed support for a paid benefit too. "There's a lot of synergy right now for paid family leave coming from Democrats and Republicans and I really think this is a dark spot for our country," McCain said. Let's hope, for the sake of all families, she's right.