Well, since I'm evil and a woman, I figure it's time to speak up. Well, that and The Naked Economist brought it up first. He writes (after a conversation with his wife):
1. Maternity benefits are expensive. And the more generous the firm in this regard, the more expensive the policy.
2. Even an expensive maternity policy makes perfect sense if it helps to retain valuable employees. But the more often a firm gets "burned" by an employee who accepts generous benefits (beyond what's required by law) and then quits, the less sense the policy makes.
3. The more generous the policy, the more it hurts to get burned.
4. If enough women accept generous maternity benefits but don't ultimately return to work, some rational firms will decide that expansive maternity benefits just don't make financial sense
The end result of this, economically speaking, is that firms will cut back on maternity leave. If every pregnant woman gets the same "benefits" and a large enough number take the benefits and run, firms may consider going back to only the benefits required by law.
Now, for full disclosure, when I was 12 weeks pregnant I told my boss that I was pregnant and that I was most likely not coming back. After the Offspring made her appearance, I took six weeks of disability leave and then resigned. My boss then offered me a part time telecommuting position which I accepted and I am still at that company.
The Naked Economist (Charles Wheelen) makes the following suggestion (again based on his wife's suggestion):
Suppose a firm wants to offer a maternity leave of 6 months at 100 percent salary, rather than the bare minimum of 6 weeks at 60 percent pay. Great. But why not fold those benefits into an employee's paycheck over the year in which he or she comes back to work -- or two years, or whatever? That's what my wife would like to see.
I really like that suggestion. Why not? Yes, there are some obvious problems, mainly that you need the money when you are not working, not when you are working. But it makes more sense than handing out generous benefits without any guarantee that the employee will return.
One of the problems I've always seen with generous maternity leaves is that it makes hiring females of child bearing age much more expensive than other employees. Let's face it, even though men can take FMLA leave for the birth of a new child, I have never known any to take more than a few days. My Brother-in-law's company offered paid paternity leave. He took it, but not consecutively, so he was never out more than two days in a row. You don't have to hire someone to fill in in that type of situation, where you would for a six month leave.
I don't know what the best solution is, but I think that Naked Economist guy has some very good insights. Of course, now I wonder what kind of Google I'm going to get. I have a feeling, some people are going to be disappointed.