The United States may have some of the top innovators at its helm, but when it comes to adopting progressive policies — as evidenced by near worldwide implementation — the U.S. lags far behind, namely in regard to federally mandated parental leave policies. Now, new research adds fuel to the fire: Paid parental leave not only boosts women’s health, but it can promote more equitable marriages with the added time given to both partners.

Our country is one of only four countries that doesn’t require, at the federal level at least, employers to keep their employees on the payroll during a maternity or paternity leave (the other countries being Lesotho, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea). Sweden, meanwhile, long heralded as a bastion of liberal spoils, allows 480 days paid leave per child, leaving the division of time between father and mother up to the parents themselves. Also, they can use the time until the child turns 8 years old. But in the U.S. it’s still left up to the states, and Canadian researchers from the Centre for Research on Inner City Health of St. Michael's Hospital, in Toronto, argue it’s severely holding us back.

"By having government policies implemented that require both parents to share parental leave, responsibilities like household and childcare duties tended to be more equally distributed between parents," said Dr. Patricia O'Campo, a social epidemiologist and director of the Centre, in a statement. "This support had a positive impact on women's health in particular."

Parental leave, if it’s offered at all by a person’s employer, typically is brief and ill-paying. In California, parents are offered six weeks leave at 55 percent their annual pay. In New Jersey, it’s six weeks at 66 percent. In Hawaii and New York, 58 and 50 percent. Federally, parents are afforded 12 weeks of unpaid leave — a concept all but foreign in most other countries.

Often, if a country offers more of one type of leave than the other, the privileged one is maternity leave. While respite from work and increased time spent with the newborn may seem, policy-wise, like the advantaged position, O’Campo and her colleagues argue it actually can place a larger burden on the woman at home. Meetings and memos are now replaced by burping and bottle changes, among the many other day-to-day tasks required of new mothers. What’s more, greater equity between parents makes for greater overall equity between partners.

"Parental leave allows both parents to spend that quality time with their child without having to worry about who will pay the bills and whether each parent had a job to return to," said O'Campo.

She and her colleagues also reviewed the literature on public policy decisions when it comes to promoting women’s health in other arenas. Political policies, she singled out, would likely benefit from an increased female presence. Deliberate intervention, in other words, such as those described by affirmative action programs, would allow female voices to push for the types of parental leave policies indicated in O’Campo’s study.

"The issue of violence against women, for instance, gets more support and there is affirmative action and policies put in place,” she explained. However, she cautioned this suggestion isn’t intended to unfairly sway the balance of power toward women. Parental leave, at its heart, is about dividing labor, time, and responsibility equally — not merely punishing fathers or husbands for the current policies in place. "Government policies should actually be good for everybody,” she said, “not just women.”

Source: Borrell C, Palencia L, Muntaner C, et al. Influence of Macrosocial Policies on Women's Health and Gender Inequalities in Health. Epidemiologic Reviews. 2014.