Five weeks after the birth of her son in 1980, Wendy Williams, an associate professor of law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., returned to work. ``It was my choice to go back then,'' she admits, ``but it was quite a challenge physically and emotionally. I totally identify with women who are forced to return soon after childbirth, either because of economic necessity or because there's no provision for a leave.''
Two weeks ago, in testimony before Congress, Professor Williams endorsed a national maternity and parental-leave policy that would require employers to give parents a minimum four-month unpaid leave to care for a newborn, adopted, or seriously ill infant. The Parental and Disability Leave Act, if passed by Congress, would guarantee job security and protect seniority privileges for a mother or father who stays home with a new baby.
Although the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 requires that pregnant employees be treated the same as employees with any temporary disability, it applies only to employers who provide disability insurance or paid sick leave. Benefits to family
``It would be difficult to understate the importance and timeliness of this new bill,'' Professor Williams says. ``The typical wage-earning woman in this country will have two children while she is in the work force. Over the course of a working lifetime, the leave time associated with caring for those two infants is small, particularly when the benefits to family and society are weighed in the balance.''
Eighty percent of American women who work are currently of childbearing age, and 93 percent of those are likely to become pregnant at some point in their careers, according to Sheila B. Kamerman, a professor of social policy and planning at Columbia University and author of the book ``Maternity Policies and Working Women.''
``Our estimates are that probably two-thirds of working women are entitled to take some time off without pay and have their job saved for them,'' she says. ``But some of this is done informally. That's especially true among smaller employers.'' Less than 40 percent of working women, she believes, have disability insurance that will permit them a six-week maternity leave. Informal leaves
Hardest hit by informal, unpaid leaves are women in small firms and those in low-wage, service-type jobs. ``In one case a woman came back two weeks after giving birth,'' Dr. Kamerman says. ``It was economic pressure -- her husband is out of work.''
But even in big companies with good benefits, she notes, ``there is increasing pressure to come back very fast after childbirth -- not after six weeks but after five. Some women at the two-month period are being told, `If you don't come back now you won't have a job.' And women who stay home beyond the six-week period with an understanding that their job is safe are coming back to discover that the job was not kept for them, or that the definition of what a comparable job is is not comparable to them.''
Dr. Kamerman describes the current legislation as ``very modest. It doesn't even deal with pay, which I think is a major weakness of it. But if the best we can get is unpaid protected child leave, then let's get that.''
Not all women are fully satisfied with the present approach, even though they may support the goals of the legislation.
Dana Friedman, a senior research associate in the Work and Family Information Center of the Conference Board in New York, says, ``My concern is that the coalition of union leaders and feminists that was formed to draft the legislation did not include corporations. To set this debate up in an adversarial way is hardly going to yield support from the corporate sector. They're mandating that companies provide this kind of leave. There's going to be a natural resistance to any mandate.
``If corporations had been involved, they could have been asked why they might resist and how the policy might be made more workable in a corporate setting. They would recognize how modest the bill is. It's really just asking for job guarantees and a little more time off.''
Why might employers resist?
``There's a knee-jerk reaction to government telling us what to do,'' Dr. Friedman says. ``There's also a lot of resistance from small companies that do not have the flexibility to adapt when somebody leaves.''
In addition, many firms, small and large, fear excessive costs in replacing workers temporarily and in continuing some benefits. It is a fear Dr. Kamerman allays by pointing to the experience of the five states -- New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, California, Hawaii -- with state-mandated temporary disability insurance programs. ``This has proved very inexpensive,'' she says. ``Several of the states have operated at a surplus.''
Part of the problem is a lack of awareness on the part of employers. ``The most consistent response I get from companies in talking about any of these issues is that they don't hear about them from employees,'' says Dr. Friedman.
``Employees at all levels feel reluctant to express these kinds of concerns, and there's an element of risk, too. Women wanting to ascend the corporate ladder don't want their male counterparts to think they have special needs. It looks like it will cost more to hire them or that they have less commitment. But when employees are given a safe forum to express their concerns, these issues will emerge.''
She cites the experience of General Foods when the corporation held ``parenting seminars'' for employees. ``Part of the package was having child-care experts talk to employees about work and family problems. Issues of leave policies kept emerging. The company responded with a six-week unpaid child-care leave that went beyond their six-week paid disability leave.''
With cautious optimism she adds, ``A growing number of companies, I'm sensing, are beginning to offer more time off -- unpaid leave. Although when I say growing number we're still talking about a handful.''
What are the advantages of parental-leave policies for employers?
By providing fair, clear-cut guidelines, Professor Williams says, businesses increase an employee's loyalty and commitment. ``I think employers will lose parents if they are inflexible on this issue. People will go elsewhere. For the long term, to maintain a competitive edge, they have to realize that both parents are in the work force and some accommodation has to be made to their home lives.''
Noting that more than 100 industrialized countries have national policies for parental leave, Professor Williams says, ``Americans have a tradition of viewing family as a private matter and believing that families ought to find a way to cope with their problems. We haven't understood as other countries have that there is a wider social obligation to families and a need to support them for the common good. We're going to face a very large crisis if parents can't take care of their families adequately. So mething's going to have to give here.
``There's no turning back today,'' she concludes. ``Women are not going to be able to leave the work force. It's the employers that are going to have to accommodate to the natural and important needs that families have. For all of us there ought to be a sense that the birth of a child is an appropriate time to take a break.''