The US and Papua New Guinea are the only two countries in the world that fail to guarantee both sick and family leave (aka maternity or parental leave) for all their workers. Although this documentary was made just prior to the global coronavirus outbreak, it lays out clearly 1) the stark brutality of employment policies that force people to work when they or a family member is sick and 2) the significant role these policies play in spreading contagious infections – as millions of Americans show up at work with early symptoms of COVID-20.
The only good news in the film is the Family Leave and Medical Insurance Act Congresswoman Rosa DeLaura (Dem Ct) introduced in 2019. The bill would guarantee US workers 12 weeks of combined sick and family leave. Under DeLaua’s proposal, the government, rather than the employer, would manage the leave benefits, funded via joint employer/employee payroll deductions.
The film also features the heart breaking stories of a physical therapist whose 2 1/2 month old baby died at a dodgy daycare center she failed to qualify for unpaid maternity leave; a teacher who was unlawfully fired when she used unpaid FMLA* leave to care for a three-year-old son undergoing cancer chemotherapy; and a lactation coach forced to go on welfare when her husband died, leaving her the sole provider and care of a newborn baby.
*The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers of over 15 employees to allow all workers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons.
Maternity Leave and Why the US is the Only Developed Nation Without It
Maternity Leave focuses on the failure of the US government to offer working mothers paid maternity leave. The US is one of two countries globally (the other is Papua New Guinea) and the only developed country without it. The rest of the world provides paid maternity leave for two simple reasons: 1) because spending time with mom is vital to newborn development and 2) because studies show financial advantages for employers, taxpayers and GDP.
Three states require employers to provide paid maternity leave: California six weeks at 55% salary, Rhode Island four weeks at 60% salary and New Jersey six weeks at 67% salary.
Ninety percent of California businesses report an increase in profitability (owing to the high cost of recruiting and training replacement workers) since they started providing paid maternity leave. Nationwide replacement workers for women who leave work to start a family cost billions of dollars. Forty percent of women without access to paid maternity leave are forced to apply for public assistance, which is also a major burden to taxpayers.
The filmmakers visit excruciatingly poor Papua New Guinea, to investigate their failure to provide paid maternity to leave – only to discover the government of Papua New Guinea provides three months paid maternity leave for public employees. This is a start contrast with an extremely anemic executive order Obama signed in 2015 allowing federal employees to “pre-use” six weeks of paid sick leave (which they haven’t earned yet) as maternity leave.
The filmmakers also visit Sweden, which has the world’s best maternity leave policy. Their generous paid parental leave (480 days per child split between both parents) has helped to bring more Swedish women into the workforce while simultaneously increasing GDP.
They interview a member of Sweden’s Feminist Party, who maintains that paid maternity leave is a matter of full equality for women. True equality means that women enjoy the same rights as men to both a job and family time – they shouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other.
Real equality also means embracing and valuing traditional women’s work (homemaking, child care and elder care).
Miss Representation takes an in-depth look at sexualization of women and girls by the corporate media. In addition to examining the psychological damage this inflicts, the film explores the largely commercial factors behind it, as well as potential solutions.
The primary role of American media (TV programming and ads, movies, music videos, billboards, etc) is to convince women that their personal appearance and the approval of men should be their number one priority.
Even more pernicious, the media project a totally unattainable standard of beauty. What makes this messaging particularly harmful is that girls and women incorporate it subconsciously without realizing it. It’s especially dangerous for the developing brains of teenagers, who lack the critical judgment skills to weigh what they see and hear. By age 17, 78% of girls are unhappy with their bodies. Even more ominous, 68% of American women and girls develop an eating disorder in their determination to be skinnier.
The effect of this messaging on men and boys is to condition them to value a woman’s appearance above intelligence, integrity and other personal characteristics.
TV’s Fixation with Youth
Although women forty and over represent 44% of the population, they only play 26% of TV roles. Being youthful isn’t enough for female TV celebrities – who are frequently pressured to lose weight or undergo breast enhancement and/or botox and collagen injections.
The film outlines three principle reasons for the entertainment industry’s one dimensional portrayal of women. The pressure to live up to an impossible ideal is incredibly effective in selling beauty products. American women spend millions of dollars yearly on cosmetics and plastic surgery, far more than they spend on education.
The media’s constant parade of stunning, sexually provocative bodies is also essential in luring men aged 18-34 (the demographic targeted by advertisers) into watching TV. Men this age tend not to watch TV, except for sports.
Finally nearly all the decision makers in the entertainment industry are men. At Walt Disney, only 4 out of 13 board members are women. At GE (which runs NBC), the ration is 4/17. At Time Warner, it’s 2/13, Viacom 2/11, CBS 2/14 and Fox 1/16. Only 16% of movie and TV directors, producers and editors are women and only 7% of screenwriters
Low Representation in Government
The objectification of women by the mass media discourages them from playing leadership roles in business, community affairs, academia and politics. The US is rapidly falling behind developing countries in this regard. Unlike the US, 67 other countries have elected female presidents and prime ministers, and the US is 90th in female representation in government. China, Cuba, Afghanistan and Iraq all have more female representatives in their national legislatures.
Two direct outcomes of this low representation are unequal pay (American women still only earn 77% of what men earn for comparable work) and the failure of the US to mandate parental leave (like all other industrialized countries) following childbirth.
Even more ominously, numerous studies link the media’s objectification of women with growing rates of domestic violence and sexual assault.
The Negative Effect on Men
Miss Representation also speaks briefly to the negative effect of this systematic gender distortion on men. Bombarded by constant media pressure to be smarter, more powerful and more respected than women – as well as making more money – men can find it difficult to cope when this fails to pan out real life. This psychological conditioning also causes young men to be “emotionally constipated.” Lacking realistic no role models, men can have a hard time learning to express emotions in a healthy way.
In western countries, I see a frightening tendency to make sick people personally responsible for being ill. We are all bombarded with constant media messaging that anyone can stay healthy if they eat the right foods, exercise, and manage their stress levels. Meanwhile media pundits who demonize people on disability benefits for being lazy and unwilling to work.
I find all this vaguely reminiscent of Hitler’s “useless eater” policies of the 1930s. Hitler’s definition of a “useless eater” was a German who consumed resources without participating in production. Included in this category were tens of thousands of individuals with chronic physical or mental illness and physical and intellectual handicaps – who would be the first inmates in Nazi concentration camps.
Internalizing this pressure to be and appear well, people blame themselves if they become ill. This attitude is strongly reinforced by the constant TV ads that bombard us for cough and cold remedies that enable people to attend work with colds and even quite serious illnesses, such as bronchitis and the “flu.”
The pressure on kids to attend school or daycare when they’re sick – because their parents can’t afford to stay home with them – is a public health disaster. Sick kids in the classroom expose a lot of other kids, who go on to infect their families. Many children suffer one respiratory after another, a perfect set up for asthma (which is reaching epidemic proportions) and permanent lung disease.
Human Beings Get Sick
Surely it’s healthier and more humane and community-minded to accept that sickness is fundamental to the human condition. Epidemiological studies show that only 10% of illness is accounted for by lifestyle factors (including smoking). Other studies show that people who take time off recover faster and cope better with other life stresses.
38% of US Workers Have No Paid Sick Leave
Advice that sick people stay home and look after themselves is easy in most civilized countries (like New Zealand) owing to national laws requiring that employers provide workers paid sick and parental leave. The US isn’t one of them. Thirty-eight percent of US workers have no paid sick leave.
There are no federal laws requiring American employers to provide paid sick leave. Only Connecticut, and a few cities (New York, Portland, San Francisco, Washington, Seattle, Newark, Tacoma, and Jersey City) have them. Even more disgusting ten states — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin — have enacted preemption bills that blocking cities and towns from passing paid sick leave legislation.
At present only California and Vermont have laws requiring employers to provide paid parental leave. So I guess working parents with sick kids are just out of luck.
The Campaign for Paid Sick Days
Just to be clear here. None of these cities and states have mandated paid sick leave because they were feeling kind and charitable. These laws were enacted because local activists fought for them. You won’t here about the Paid Sick Days for All Coalition on the six o’clock news. The corporate media wants you to believe the war is over and the good guys lost (to quote Leonard Cohen).
The war against corporate fascism ain’t over by a long shot. People can get get involved with the Paid Sick Days for All through their website: http://paidsickdaysforall.org/