Image: Carme Chacon
Bernat Armangue  /  AP
Spain's defense minister Carme Chacon reviews troops in Madrid. In Spain some were already questioning whether Chacon, Spain's first woman defense minister, should be able to take the state-mandated 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, given the importance of her job.
updated 4/18/2008 6:19:26 PM ET 2008-04-18T22:19:26

You didn’t have to know anything about Spanish politics to be fascinated by the striking photo that came out of Spain this week: The new defense minister, 37 and seven months pregnant, reviewing her troops in a chic maternity outfit.

But some women who felt a jolt of sisterly pride from across the Atlantic also felt a pang of empathy at another part of the story. In Spain, some were questioning whether Carme Chacon should be able to take her state-mandated 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, given the importance of her job.

And that kind of dilemma resonates for women anywhere who have jobs they need and value: What do you do when the timing of motherhood clashes with the upward trajectory of your career?

For most American women, of course, the idea of 16 weeks paid leave is a mere dream. The United States is one of a handful of countries with no guaranteed paid maternity leave policy, along with Swaziland, Papua New Guinea, Lesotho and Liberia, researchers found last year.

On the state level, New Jersey is set to become the third state with a law granting paid leave, after California and Washington. And the federal Family Medical Leave Act provides, with some exceptions, 12 weeks of unpaid leave and benefits.

But whatever the provisions, women often find themselves wondering if they should take all their maternity leave — often actually a disability leave — and whether that would hurt their career.

“It’s scary to leave,” says Susan Kane, editor in chief of Parenting magazine. “Women are still afraid their employers will learn they can do without them.” As for Chacon, whose photo left Kane feeling “delighted and excited,” she should feel free to take her leave, Kane says. “Anyone in power has a No. 2 who can cover for them. Besides, she can take calls — she’ll still have a brain!”

Prominent U.S. feminist Eleanor Smeal scoffs at the suggestion, made in a Spanish newspaper, that Chacon, who hasn’t said how much leave she’ll take, would be hurting her country by taking all of it. What, she asked, would people say if it were a male minister who got sick? At least this, you can plan.

“It’s just an excuse to keep us out of a host of jobs — saying women can’t do things because they get pregnant,” said Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Smeal was one of the women who complained a few years ago to ABC News when Elizabeth Vargas, the new co-anchor of ABC’s “World News,” left her job not long after co-anchor Bob Woodruff was wounded in Iraq. She was pregnant with her second child and had a toddler at home, and said she needed to focus on those responsibilities.

Women’s groups were outraged, assuming Vargas had been pushed aside, and demanded ABC find a way to keep her in the job. But Vargas said it was her choice. She returned after maternity leave to anchor the news magazine “20/20.”

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“I loved my job at ’World News,”’ she wrote later, “but the prospect of doing it well, and still finding time to be a good mother to 3-year-old Zachary and my new baby, Samuel, felt impossible.”

Vargas had a great job waiting for her. But many women find they lose out on promotions and pay once they begin the reproductive route, experts say.

“There’s a clear penalty to motherhood and caregiving in this country,” says Eileen Appelbaum, director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University. “Basically we’ve said to women, if you can conduct yourself in the workplace as if you were a man, without any other responsibilities, being available day and night, then (and only then) will your pay and opportunities will be similar.”

At California’s Hastings College of the Law, Joan Williams, a professor and expert on workplace issues, helps operate a hotline for people who feel they’ve been discriminated against based on family responsibilities. “We hear all the time about people either denied leave they’re entitled to, or retaliated against when they take it,” she says.

The problems can be more subtle. “Sometimes people are allowed to take leave but are bombarded with work calls while they’re out,” Williams says. “Sometimes a woman professional returns to her job and finds that nobody gives her any work, because they feel she’s not committed or competent.”

Kane, the Parenting editor, says that when she returned to an earlier job after her first maternity leave, she found that people had been “very eager to take over parts of my job, and didn’t want to give them back.” She had to be persistent about reclaiming them. Kane also notes that many women return to work and are afraid they’ll suffer professionally because they have to leave at 5 p.m. “People still think there’s a mommy track,” she said. “In fact, that woman who leaves at 5 may have gotten a lot more efficient.”

Meanwhile, efforts continue to get American women paid maternity leave. Debra Ness, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Partnership for Women and Families, considers it “shameful” that the United States was one of those five countries — and certainly the only economic power — to lack paid maternity leave out of 173 studied by researchers at Harvard and McGill universities last year.

“The top 20 most economically competitive countries in the world have all figured out how to do it,” says Ness. “But not the United States.”

She points out that an estimated 40 percent of the work force is not even eligible for FMLA protection, because there have to be more than 50 employees in a workplace and an employee has to have been there for at least a year.

In the meantime, says Appelbaum of the Center for Women and Work, “either we give men hormones so they can bear children as well, or we need a different approach to gender equality in the workplace.”

And as for the Spanish defense minister, she says, “I sincerely doubt that that if this woman takes her full 16 weeks that her ministry in Spain will not survive.” In other words, she should take care of her baby for a few months. Then she can take care of the Spanish military.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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