This family can be crushed like paper dolls.

A recent article in the Washington Post highlighted that despite pro-family rhetoric, many religions do not offer paid family leave to employees.  Mormonism was highlighted as providing no paid family leave to either men or women [1], although they were consistent with a few other conservative religious groups.  Given our focus on families, why doesn’t the church offer paid family leave?

E. Cook has spoken on this topic twice in General Conference, and he seems to be in favor of family-friendly policies.  In 2011, he said:

We should all be careful not to be judgmental or assume that sisters are less valiant if the decision is made to work outside the home. We rarely understand or fully appreciate people’s circumstances. Husbands and wives should prayerfully counsel together, understanding they are accountable to God for their decisions.

You devoted sisters who are single parents for whatever reason, our hearts reach out to you with appreciation. Prophets have made it clear “that many hands stand ready to help you. The Lord is not unmindful of you. Neither is His Church.”  I would hope that Latter-day Saints would be at the forefront in creating an environment in the workplace that is more receptive and accommodating to both women and men in their responsibilities as parents.

And again in 2013, he said:

At a time when I was the only member of the Church in our law firm, one woman lawyer explained to me how she always felt like a juggler trying to keep three balls in the air at the same time. One ball was her law practice, one was her marriage, and one was her children. She had almost given up on time for herself. She was greatly concerned that one of the balls was always on the ground. I suggested we meet as a group and discuss our priorities. We determined that the primary reason we were working was to support our families. We agreed that making more money wasn’t nearly as important as our families, but we recognized that serving our clients to the best of our abilities was essential. The discussion then moved to what we did at work that was not necessary and was inconsistent with leaving time for family. Was there pressure to spend time in the workplace that was not essential?

He concluded:

We decided that our goal would be a family-friendly environment for both women and men. Let us be at the forefront in protecting time for family.

Traditional maternity leave

Women in careers frequently face disproportionate challenges to their male peers when parental leave policies are minimal.  Aside from the obvious need for infants to have a caregiver and for women who give birth to have time to heal properly, companies with leave policies dominated by male interests often foster hostile attitudes toward women who have children.  When I moved to Singapore in 2011, one of the headlines in the Straits Times was that Singapore Air was finally dropping its practice of firing any pregnant flight attendants.  Although it sounded like something out of Mad Men, a nearly unfathomable discriminatory practice, I soon discovered that the church’s CES department also fired women who had babies, claiming that 100% of them chose to quit. [2]

When a workplace only offers paid maternity leave but no parental leave for fathers, it can still result in a disproportionate burden on women.  In these situations, women are a greater liability to their employers than men, even when men are raising families.  It also places an unfair burden on women who in most contemporary marriages have a more equitable partnership with husbands in caring for their children but due to unequal policies are required to shoulder the whole burden.  Because of these disadvantages, women often make less pay than men over time or choose exit ramps from their careers at higher rates, resulting in a continued lack of female representation at higher levels of management where policies are typically set.

Men who take parental leave model the importance of fathers.

Given these outcomes and our focus on the importance of families, why doesn’t the church provide family-friendly leave policies?

Conservative Politics

Conservatives tend to favor policies that give the most possible latitude to businesses, preferring to let markets self-regulate.  For example, if a company offers more general leave than a competitor, that company may be more successful than the competitor at winning and retaining top talent which will provide them a competitive advantage.  Conservatives would argue that generous leave policies have a market value, and companies should use them accordingly; government interference or regulation will only place additional burden on companies.

Unfortunately, it’s clear from looking at policies from many different companies that without government interference, status quo prevails.  Companies only have to be slightly better than another company, and when all companies provide fairly poor options for family leave, the “losers” are those who don’t contribute to the economy:  infants, the elderly, and other dependents in need of care.  Pro-business policies are often anti-social.

While the church is theoretically pro-social, it’s also run by very politically conservative leadership.  And politics color gospel interpretation far more than the reverse happens.  If leaders believe in the importance of a less regulated free market, they will be reluctant to question status quo policies that seem to be acceptable business practices simply because they are the norm.

Churches, like other employers, find little reason to ever do more than the law requires, even if in principle it is better for employees.  This is why free market arguments often result in anti-social policies and practices.  Companies don’t want to bear the burden, and unless government requires all employers to bear that burden, eliminating the short term financial and resource disadvantage, there is little incentive for employers to go above and beyond.

Sexism

Dude looks like a lady.

Is it possible to be pro-family while being anti-woman?  It sure seems like it is.  Conservatives who favor traditional gender roles frequently place women in a difficult position with regard to family responsibility.  Very few families can support themselves financially with only one income, and that number is getting smaller as the economy continues to struggle.  Our current economy is based on an expectation of dual income families, not on single breadwinner families.  If we ignore this reality, we blame those who are trying hard to “adapt to individual circumstances” as it says in the Proclamation on the Family rather than supporting the policies that will enable them to succeed.

Policies that make it a financial hardship to women to give birth by not providing any paid leave make it harder for families, period.  Policies that don’t provide paid leave for fathers as well as mothers likewise place undue burden on women which adds stress to the family.

Additionally, companies with a lack of female representation at policy-setting levels consistently lag behind competitors in creating family friendly policies.  Perhaps adding more women to councils will improve this within church employment.

Frugality

Scrooge McDuck loves to lecture his nephews on earning their own way.

Churches are largely volunteer organizations that don’t always have deep coffers.  While that’s not true of the Mormon church, as we have had many years of very wise financial investments, church employment positions are consistently low paying.  For those who choose church employment, there must be other attractions than mere pay.  And yet, that doesn’t mean benefits should require choices that hurt families for those who feel church employment is a good choice for them, particularly when we also encourage all church members to have families.  Those families require both nurturing support by present caregivers (of both sexes) and sufficient financial support.

Tradition

Maybe it’s just a matter of time.  Once it is the norm for companies to provide better paid parental leave, the church will follow suit.  That’s not demonstrating leadership on this topic, of course.  Doing no better than the market dictates isn’t any better than waiting for governmental regulation to require it.

Perhaps Elder Cook is the only one who feels this is important.

Peer Performance

The original linked article put the Mormon church on par with Focus on the Family and Catholic Charities USA, two other conservative religious employers.  It also noted that most religious groups lagged behind professional companies in providing paid family leave.  Perhaps the issue isn’t just the market, US norms, or tradition.  Maybe it’s just what is tolerable for religious employers.

What do you think?

[poll id=”546″]

Since offering no paid leave hurts growing families, what exactly are we defending?

Discuss.

[1] BYU-P does offer generous (by US standards) paid maternity leave.  BYU-I does not offer any paid parental leave.  Neither school considers fathers eligible for any paid leave for the care of a newborn.  Considering how few women are employed by the church, adding these benefits would not be a substantial cost, although extending them to both sexes would be far more family-friendly.

[2] Because who wouldn’t rather live on food stamps and welfare?  This harmful policy was finally changed last year.