When this project started I knew the problem of pregnancy and maternity discrimination was complex and nuanced. To create change amendments are needed to legislation that will start to trigger a cultural and societal shift.
As I have done more reading and research and considered the issue further, I think the most important change we need to make is longer, paid paternity leave. I believe that if the Government were to offer fathers 6 weeks paternity leave at 90% of their pay, to be taken once the mother has returned to work, this would have the biggest impact on the gender pay gap and reducing discrimination in the workplace.
Here is why:
There are many reasons why the new policy of Shared Parental Leave will only have very limited impact, but the two key reasons are the gender pay gap and the patriarchal values that pervade our society.
Starting a family can be an expensive affair, all that new kit plus the time off work required to look after your new family member, can leave many scrimping and scraping so it would make sense that the person who has the least pay would take parental leave. As the gender pay gap currently sits at approximately 19% it is highly unlikely that men will take paternity leave when they are more likely to have the highest income.
The traditional nuclear family, with men as the “leaders” and women as the “nurturers,” is still incredibly prevalent and patriarchal values dictate that an alternative set up is considered irregular. Unfortunately we still live in a culture where care-giving is expected to be provided by women, active fathers are showered in praise as if they are doing something positive but surprising –
‘Is your husband baby sitting?’
‘Isn’t he amazing for changing that nappy?’
‘He’s a stay at home dad? I assume he is looking for a real job?’ (this happened to a friend of mine on a weekly basis)
In a work environment, maternity leave is normal, paternity leave longer than 2 weeks is not. Men that request flexible working or extended paternity leave often find themselves victims of harassment by colleagues who consider it unmanly and employers consider them less committed, I have received many stories that testify to this. Some companies who offer maternity benefits are unwilling to offer the same benefits to father’s, reinforcing the notion that child care is ‘women’s work’. In the UK, Maternity leave is compulsory for 6 weeks and women receive 90% of their salaries for this period. There is nothing similar in place for fathers.
We want to see the challenges of balancing a career and child care as a parenting issue rather than a mother’s issue. To create this cultural and societal shift new legislation is required. Giving fathers access to leave paid at a rate comparable to their income would start to redress the balance. The Swedish system is testament to this, where fathers are given 3 months leave at 80% of their pay. In the Uk Less than 10% of fathers take more than 2 weeks paternity leave and 40% of fathers do not take paternity leave at all, whereas in Sweden paternity leave can be as high as 85%
The motherhood penalty is something most women are aware of and simply accept as being par for the course when having children. A study by mumsnet showed that 91% of their users felt the motherhood penalty exists. This means that women expect to be negatively effected in a variety of ways, reducing their earning potential and stagnating their careers. This isn’t just about your current employment, the impact has a long lasting effect and can be felt in both a woman’s professional and personal life.
Many wrongly believe that the negative impact on women stops when maternity leave finishes and they return to work, but even if a woman returns to work full time, she is still likely to be the main care giver. Parenting is a skill, you learn from experience. Maternal instinct is nonsense and it re-enforces patriarchal values, fathers are just as equipped as mothers to be good parents. As mothers develop these skills whilst on maternity leave they are inevitably better at certain parenting tasks than fathers so the reliance on the mother as primary caregiver continues once she goes back to work. As parenting is time consuming and (at times) mentally and physically exhausting, mothers are less likely to apply for positions at a higher level, they will seek out flexible working which is paid less and they will inevitably have less time to devote to their careers. The financial impact will last a life time, it can be seen in reduced pensions for women as their overall earning has been less during their working years.
Paternity leave isn’t just about childcare, it is about the management of the house, the work traditionally done by a housewife. If men take time out to look after their children and the mother is at work, then they will also be responsible for other household chores. In the majority of households women do the lion’s share of the house work. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development says that women spend on average 2 hours a week more than men on house chores. Paternity leave gives men the opportunity to not only spend time caring for their children, but to experience the utter chaos they can create and the work involved in managing that chaos. Once there is an understanding by both mother and father of the mountain of task that need to be completed in the home it is likely to create a more equal relationship. This means women will claw back some of the time spent on unpaid domestic work, giving them more time to progress their careers or do whatever it is they would like to do with that extra time.
When housework is shared and dads are involved through teenage years, girls are also less likely to follow gender-stereotyped careers in favour of trying new things instead, while boys will be less likely to fight, and more likely to choose egalitarian relationships.
For father’s who don’t take any solo paternity leave, it is impossible for them to understand what it is like to be at home juggling child care and house chores. Some see maternity leave as an easy ride, a holiday with a couple of nappies to change and that can create friction in a relationship. This view can feed down into how employers and colleagues view employees on maternity leave creating negative feeling towards new mums in the workplace. How many times have you heard a woman say ‘I didn’t understand until I became a mother myself’. Some of you may remember this powerful statement by Katharine Zaleski
Care giving is not valued in our patriarchal society, with bread winning considered to have far more worth and importance. Care giving is traditionally the role women play and most of us unconsciously subscribe to this gender divide. We use language that re-enforces these roles, we give girls nurturing tasks to complete, we mock the men who enter care giving professions and we place barriers in the way of women who want to succeed in their careers.
Society could not function without effective care giving, it is just as important as effective bread winning. Yet, this is not the message we receive from the Government, from companies, from the media. How much time and money is invested in care giving compared to the time, money and media coverage spent on creating a healthy economy? Sweden, with its extended compulsory paternity leave and flexible working policies has shown that valuing caregiving can have a positive knock on effect for general well being and the economy:
- In Sweden, the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is USD 29 185 a year, more than the OECD average of USD 25 908 a year
- Sweden tops financial wellbeing rankings
- Swedes ranks #6 out of 151 countries for wellbeing
- A study in Sweden showed that for every month dad took for parental leave, mum’s future earnings increased by 7%.
Ultimately a more equal balance of child care and house chores in the home, will give us a much stronger chance of equality in the workplace, generating a more equal society. We believe that increasing paternity leave and offering fathers paternity income similar to their salaries will start to create the cultural shift required.
Joeli Brearley, Founder Pregnant Then Screwed.