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The Impact of Family-Friendly Work Policies for Women

By: Heather LaCombe & Sarah Schupp, 
Tue, 11/21/2017

The New York Times and Business Insider both featured Assistant Professor Mallika Thomas's working paper about the unintended repercussions of family-friendly policies on women’s careers.  The two articles detail how policies aimed at welcoming more women into the workforce and promoting family-work balance could be contributing to a decline in career advancement.

According to Thomas' research, after the Family Medical Leave Act enactment in 1993, "U.S. women were 5% more likely to remain employed but 8% less likely to get promotions than they were before the Family Medical Leave Act became law."

The likelihood of promotions decreased only among women under 40, and the gender gap in promotions was widest in age groups where women had the highest chance of having a child.  Thomas believes this is because companies are hesitant to invest resources in the careers of women who they believe are likely to leave to raise families. In fact, she found that the gender gap in promotions was largest in firms with the highest cost of training.“The problem ends up being that all women, even those who do not anticipate having children or cutting back in hours, may be penalized," Prof. Thomas told The New York Times."

The Business Insider also mentioned how Thomas’ study corresponds with the findings of other Cornell economists' research on family-friendly labor policies overseas. Professors Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn  “studied 22 countries and found that family-friendly policies (including long maternity leaves and part-time work protections) in Europe did help more women join the workforce. But those women were more likely to assume low-level positions and were less likely to be managers.”

View Thomas's full working paper, "The Impact of Mandated Maternity Benefits on the Gender Differential in Promotions: Examining the Role of Adverse Selection," here.

To read the Business Insider article, "How family-friendly policies can hurt women's careers," click here.

Read The New York Times Upshot article, "When Family-Friendly Policies Backfire," here.

Mallika Thomas is a professor of economics at Cornell. She studies labor economics, personnel economics, and economics of the family. Her research focuses fundamentally on addressing the causes of persistent inequality and the consequences of policy responses. Her most recent work focuses on peer effects in education among female MBA students and causes of the gender-wage gap upon graduation and beyond, the impact of family leave policies on the wage growth, and promotion opportunities of young women, and on the impact of such policies on employer-based discrimination. 

To learn more about Prof. Thomas's background, publications, and research click here.

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