Stop Calling It Maternity Leave!

State VP Voice


As someone who has spent more than half her career in Muslim countries, I am used to being asked what it’s like to be a woman in the Foreign Service. I developed stock answers and anecdotes ranging from humorous to thought-provoking.

But it wasn’t until I was posted in Sweden that I stopped focusing on how many female ambassadors there were or how to interact with male contacts and started thinking about gender equality, work-life balance and what it truly means to be family-friendly.

Just as Americans find it hard to imagine a society in which women are denied the right to vote, drive or be educated, Swedes find it hard to understand a society in which parents are not automatically granted special leave on the birth (or adoption) of a child.

One of my Swedish colleagues was shocked to learn that new Foreign Service parents do not receive any parental leave and that the colleague she thought was on “maternity leave” was actually using a combination of annual leave, sick leave and leave without pay.

Employees who want to expand their families must choose between doing so and taking vacation, or doing so and earning a salary.

Now that I am involved in fighting for employee rights, I hear story after story about problems our female employees face when they make the decision to have a baby. (Note: Employees who choose to adopt or use a surrogate, including same-sex couples, also face struggles that AFSA is advocating to ease. However, for the purposes of this short article, I am focusing on pregnant employees.)

It is surprising that the diplomatic service of the United States—a country that works tirelessly around the globe to protect women and children and to fight for basic human rights—still treats its own female employees in such a way during what should be one of the happiest periods of their lives.

I am not a parent, nor do I plan to become one, but I feel very strongly about the need for the State Department to do much better in this area and to become the model employer it claims to be.

How could the department do better? First and foremost, take notes from the Department of Defense’s recent decision to grant employees actual parental leave to determine how the Foreign Service can do the same. Other steps could include:

(1) Funding both parents’ travel from post to the U.S. birth location. What kind of message are we sending about being family-friendly if we tell the non-pregnant partner that it is not important for them to be present at the birth of their children, or to assist their partners before, during and after delivery?

(2) Taking the no-cost step of allowing older children to travel to join the mother at a later time instead of requiring concurrent travel, forcing a near-term pregnant woman to care for older children alone.

(3) Authorizing per diem during the entire medical evaluation (MEDEVAC), instead of forcing the mother to be out-of-pocket or move out of temporary lodging during her hospital stay.

(4) Appointing a point of contact for pregnancy-related MEDEVACs and pregnancy policy to provide clear and consistent written guidance to employees and management officers.

(5) Matching pregnant employees who are in the United States awaiting delivery with telework and/or bridge assignments so they do not have to burn annual leave while able to work.

These are but a few of the ideas that the department could pursue to help support soon-to-be parents.

I am pleased to report that the department recently formed a working group to look at these issues, and has invited AFSA to participate. We are also working closely with the employee organization Balancing Act and others to make sure that we have a good understanding of the wide range of issues affecting employees who wish to expand their families.

We are always open to hearing your experiences. If you have one to share, especially if you have a solution to propose along with it, please reach out to me at

Angie Bryan is the Department of State vice president of the American Foreign Service Association.