For years, Democrats have been in favor of the federal government providing families much more generous support for child care and requiring employers to grant paid leave for spouses who have newborns or have ailing family members. Republicans have blocked or watered down such proposals in Congress, arguing that the Feds can't afford yet another new entitlement program and should resist the temptation to regulate employer-employee relations, traditionally the province of states and of companies themselves.
Hillary Clinton has already been predictably forceful in pushing for more family support
. But the big surprise is that Donald Trump has now spoken up in favor as well. Seemingly spurred on by his daughter Ivanka, Trump committed last Wednesday
to something no other Republican candidate ever has: a significant package of support for young families.
If Clinton and Trump can together reach agreement and through their campaigns create bipartisan public support for paid family leave, it would be a major breakthrough for women.
During the presidency of Bill Clinton, Congress enacted a requirement that employers provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave but balked at the idea of paid leave. Since then, Congress has split mostly along party lines in opposing further support, even as most other developed nations have embraced paid family leave as both humane and just.
Today, the United States is the only developed country that does not offer government-mandated paid maternity leave. Almost 25% of new moms who work take either no time off or go back to work within two weeks, one survey showed
, and more than half are working fewer than three months after giving birth.
It is difficult for most working women to understand why the U.S. is so backward and hard-hearted. Public polls
show that two-thirds of all voters and three-quarters of all women support paid family leave. So, the fact that in a poisonous, divisive election the two main nominees agree on at least this one issue for pregnant female employees -- if not their male spouses -- represents a major potential breakthrough.
But, this being politics, there is always a catch -- in this case, it is uncertainty over whether the Trump forces will show that they are willing to walk the walk.
That includes Ivanka Trump.
Ivanka Trump's well-received speech at the Republican National Convention in July, in which she discussed women-friendly policies in the workplace, was a showstopper, and her father says she has pushed him on such policies
But while Ivanka's willingness to increase her visibility is impressive, it also escalates our expectations of her. And those expectations took a battering early last month, when reports surfaced
that G-III, the design company that actually manages Ivanka's lifestyle brand, offers their pregnant associates the barest maternity benefit required by U.S. law: 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. Meanwhile, Ivanka also sidestepped
the controversy started by her father's and brother's naive advice
on how workplace victims should respond to sexual harassment.
Such missteps raise legitimate questions about whether Ivanka's enthusiasm for her father's proposals is about enticing valuable women votes -- is her carefully constructed positioning as an advocate for women in the workforce truly authentic, or only as deep as its intersection with her profit and branding goals?
The answer to that question could have significant bearing on how much progress is made on the issue of paid leave and family support more generally, especially if her father is elected president. With that in mind, it is important that Ivanka shows a willingness to invest her economic, intellectual and star power to shape policies toward women in the workplace, by changing some of her own business practices.
To her great credit, Ivanka has already shown she can be an enlightened leader. Her own corporate team, of a dozen direct employees at Ivanka Trump Inc. is small, but they do reportedly enjoy a relatively progressive eight-week paid maternity leave policy.
If Ivanka is to make further inroads on the issue, though, she would do well to look toward the examples of women like Jessica Alba of The Honest Company
and Jane Wurwand of Dermalogica
. Alba and Wurwand have each focused on taking action to change industry standards to support more women-friendly policies in practice, in their own companies.
For them, advocating for women who work is more than a branding exercise of hashtags and self-help books. They've built purposeful brands -- and profitable companies -- by fully integrating into their operating models policies like extended paid leave, and required standards for vendors on family-friendly issues.
Such practices are, simply, good business. Paid maternity leave is proven to enhance productivity and profits. When companies opt for the minimum commitment to pregnant workers, they're also opting to lower company productivity.
This matters because U.S. worker productivity is in its longest decline since the late 1970s
. Whoever can convincingly show up on the public stage in the next four years to drive the emerging political consensus around paid maternity leave into both national policy and law could therefore have a major impact down the road on our economy -- and on the lives of millions of women and their families.
Ivanka Trump's ability to prove her authenticity is crucial if she wants us to believe she can help lead on this issue -- and make a difference for all Americans.