Comedian John Oliver Calls Out America’s Lack of Paid Maternity Leave

I’ve been a fan of comedian John Oliver long before he became a viral sensation with his HBO show Last Week Tonight. Years ago, I caught his stand-up act at a Manhattan comedy club and, if I’m remembering correctly, was amazed at how he managed to have the audience guffawing with jokes about things like his childhood distaste for cabbage.

Seriously. Cabbage.

But this past weekend, my admiration of his talent transformed into something else. With apologies to my husband, I fell a little bit in love with the sharp-witted Brit. This is why: Oliver devoted a 12-minute segment of his show to the mind-boggling fact that, unlike almost every other country on earth, the U.S. guarantees no paid maternity leave.

“If a worker with no paid leave goes into labor at work, she better hope it’s on her lunch hour and that her co-workers don’t mind if the break room gets a bit messy,” he joked.

As someone who strongly believes in paid maternity leave (not to mention paternity leave and adoptive parent leave, too!), I want to hear as many people talking about this as possible. And plenty of women are talking about it, including women-fronted advocacy groups like the National Partnership for Women & Families, Moms Rising, and Make It Work.

But we need men on board with the cause and John Oliver is a great addition to the pro-maternity leave brotherhood. Other notable members include Vittorio Colao, the CEO of Vodafone, which recently announced a 16-week paid maternity leave policy, and Peter Fasolo, the human resources vice president at Johnson & Johnson, which as of last month, began offering paid leave to all parents.

Men continue to dominate managerial positions in corporate America. Of the S&P 500 Companies, fewer than 5 percent of CEOs are women and just one-quarter of executive and senior-level managers are women, according to Catalyst, an organization advocating for women in business.

In her book Lean In, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg writes, “Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.”

I don’t doubt that she’s right, but I also don’t want to have to wait for more women to ascend to power — for the percentage of female CEOs to hit the double digits or whatever the critical mass for change is — before paid maternity leave becomes a reality. I want paid family leave, including maternity leave, to happen as soon as possible. I want it yesterday.

And if Congress won’t give it to us, then individual companies can lead the charge. Right now, businesses are overwhelmingly led by men. But as companies like Vodafone have proven, that doesn’t mean they can’t find the will to establish reasonable maternity leave benefits.

Here’s where Oliver comes in. No, he’s not a CEO or a board member of some influential, multinational behemoth — at least, not to my knowledge — but he can and does wield tremendous influence on people of both genders. His comedic rants on subjects like net neutrality and the Miss America pageants have yielded incredible results.

So will his maternity leave masterpiece become a topic of water cooler conversation among both women and men? Will his funny but pointed words sway high-ranking professional males who, to date, have been oblivious to or agnostic on the issue?

Time will tell … but I hope not too much time. The sooner more parents have access to paid leave, the sooner moms can stop worrying about break room births, and that’s a win for everyone.

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