Comparing maternity leave policies worldwide – who does it best?

Maternity leave is often cited as a simple snapshot of the degree of economic development in a country. Find out who around the world does it best.

The World Bank states that parental leave and the policies governing it are critical to societal development since it leads to lower infant mortality rates, lower motherhood penalties, and better wage distribution.

Contrasting the state of maternity leave in countries around the world is instructive and offers insights into how a government prioritizes economic development.

Why maternity leave policies matter

Every country in the world grants maternity leave. However, there are many distinctions once we dive into paid versus unpaid leave. The World Bank states that only 115 countries grant over 14 weeks of paid maternity leave to expectant mothers. In fact, 3% of countries do not mandate paid maternity leave.

Aside from the monetary benefits, the length of paid leave also impacts other social equality causes such as the proportion of working women, wage equality, and governmental support for working mothers. Parenthood is routinely an area where governments offer women the least support, with most societies expecting women to return to the workforce immediately and work similar hours as previously.

Policies like these result in women losing promotion opportunities and eventually drive them out of the workforce. Women face challenges returning to the workplace since their motherly duties add to workplace stress. Policymakers worldwide are recognizing these realities and creating policies that support working mothers better.

Comparing maternity leave policies

Maternity leave policies in various countries offer fascinating insights into how governments view the role of women in the workforce. For instance, the 90-day maternity leave in South Korea highlights the work-oriented nature in that country.

Typically, employees take maternity leave 45 days before birth and for another 45 days after delivery. Those experiencing complicated or multiple births receive 120 days’ leave. Maternity compensation at this time is paid from a combination of social security and employer payments. 

Employees at large companies receive full salaries for the first 60 days, following which the government pays support for the next 30 days. The employee’s company can offer additional payments in case of salary shortfalls. Smaller companies receive government support throughout the leave period.

While South Korea’s approach might appear to prioritize getting women back to the office quickly, it pales in comparison to the United States. The Federal Government does not categorize maternity or any form of parental leave separately.

Instead, all family-related leaves are clubbed together under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Employees can claim 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for their family members, with assured job protection. In addition, employees must qualify for such leave.

They must have worked at least 1,250 hours over the prior 12 months while working at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles. American states complement the FMLA by offering additional family-related leave benefits. However, a lack of compensation for maternity leave is the rule.

Given the capitalistic vision that the American government adopts, the responsibility for maternity leave compensation often falls on employers, and as a result, policies vary. 

Western Europe adopts different standards

Western European and Scandinavian countries have been lauded for their stance towards parental leave. The Netherlands embodies the Western European approach by offering employees 16 weeks maternity leave, fully paid. The leave is broken into two halves, prenatal and postnatal.

In contrast to the American approach, employees must take 4 to 6 weeks leave before the due date and take the remaining time off following the birth of their child or children. Maternity pay is guaranteed by the Employee Insurance Agency (the eminently pronounceable Uitvoeringsinstituut Werknemersverzekeringen or UMV.)

Pregnancy complications are also covered. The employee is eligible for a full salary for a year after birth if complications result in them being unable to perform their work-related tasks. The Netherlands’ 112 weeks of maternity leave is on the higher side but is nowhere close to Norway.

Norway tops the maternity leave charts, offering employees 419 days of paid maternity leave. Employees can choose 59 weeks of leave at 80% of their regular income or 49 weeks at 100% compensation. However, employees who earn more than 480,000 NOK are not entitled to paid maternity or parental leave.

Connecting maternity leave to quality of life

Maternity leave policies in Western Europe and Scandinavia make it easy to see why those countries routinely score high on quality of life indexes and happiness lists. This isn’t to say that the likes of America and South Korea are somehow unhappy.

However, maternity leave policies and the degree of social development go hand in hand. Given the benefits, we hope governments worldwide take note and enact appropriate policies.