On the face of it, Prince William's decision to take two weeks of job-protected, paid statutory paternity leave is absurd.
The heir to the British throne can live without the approximately $206 a week in taxpayer funds that men in Britain are entitled to receive if they take time off to welcome a baby.
But as a symbolic gesture, the prince's choice is, as the Brits would say, brilliant. For in William's subtle, necessarily apolitical, good-guy way, he has issued the boldest possible statement of support for true workplace equality between men and women. It's a message that was too quickly buried amid all the baby-naming hysteria this past week. And it's one that we in the United States need to hear if we're ever going to get past the place where women have been mired for the past decade.
The U.S. is totally out of step with Europe — and even with free-market-friendly Britain — when it comes to family- leave policies.
It's the only industrialized nation that doesn't offer new mothers any job-protected, paid maternity leave; the only developed country that doesn't guarantee paid sick leave; the only advanced economy that doesn't guarantee its workers any paid vacation time; and one of the only industrialized nations with no regulations to support flexible options for caretakers. But the U.S. is just like the rest of the world in that whatever leave or flexibility options exist are primarily used by women and are perceived as tools to allow them to meet the unique demands of working motherhood.
Private-sector work-life policies in the U.S. aren't just overwhelmingly used by women; they are also advocated for and administered by women and primarily pitched to female job candidates as a woman-friendly selling point. All this is done with the best possible intentions, as well as an eye to good business practice.
After all, if 31 percent of "highly qualified" American professional women are now leaving their jobs for extended periods to be with their kids, and 66 percent are downgrading their formerly top-flight careers to low-status, low-influence, part-time or "flex time" work, as economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett has found, that means a lot of valuable human capital is being lost.
This "leaky pipeline" phenomenon — much discussed this year with Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg's mega-hit "Lean In" — isn't just bad news for women's progress. It also amounts to a costly brain drain that even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a body not particularly known for its progressive attitudes, considers enough of a competitiveness issue that it started a Center for Women in Business to address the "missing big-talent pool" of women at the top of American corporations.
The seemingly obvious fixes for this problem — more and better policies aimed at helping women balance work and family — have proved successful in keeping women at work, in at least some capacity. But they've been extremely disappointing so far in helping them advance and truly rise as far as their ambitions and talents might take them.
In Europe, where generous leave and flexibility policies exist to varying extents in every nation, the same pattern — of men steadily advancing while women "lean back" and stagnate — holds up. The sense of frustration now in the European Union, where only 3 percent of chief executive officers and 15 percent of board members are female, is such that some women's advocates, such as the French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, argue that too much family-friendliness has proved to be the enemy of women's progress.