Manifesto promises that allow fathers share maternity leave are good for all women
Speaking as a non-parent, if someone was to ask me what my favourite manifesto promise is – one that I think that I would personally benefit from were it to be introduced this side of 2020 – I’d instinctively plump for Fine Gael and Labour’s pledge to allow paid maternity leave to be shared between mothers and fathers. I may never have kids, yet as a woman I still have a vested interest in the idea that fathers would be able to get paid (or partially paid) time off during the first year of their baby’s life, while their partners take their breasts back to the office.
Specifically, Fine Gael says: “We will review maternity leave to permit parents to share leave entitlements, recognising the changing needs of modern families.” The party’s potential coalition partner sounds slightly more cautious: “Labour favours moving to a paternity leave model, where parents can share paid leave when a new baby is born, as resources allow. [my italics]”
It’s a remarkably simple concept that already exists in the divinely woman-friendly Sweden and will be introduced in the UK from April. Under the new UK system, if a mother returns to work without taking a full year’s maternity leave, the father will be able to take leave for the remaining time, up to a maximum of six months. It’s a measure that was pushed through in the dying days of the Labour government by its deputy leader Harriet Harman, who is that lesser spotted creature in politics these days: a feminist.
To the horror of the business lobby, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg – who himself took time off after the birth of his first child so his wife Miriam could return to work – says he wants to bring in further flexibility from 2015. He describes the current rules as “Edwardian” , saying the “paltry” UK rules granting two weeks’ paternity leave on statutory pay “patronise women and marginalise men”.
Imagine how it feels then to be living in sub-Edwardian Ireland, where paternity leave, either paid or unpaid, isn’t recognised in employment law – at all. Bibs and beakers and buggies are for women only as far as our legislators are concerned. Too bad if you belong to a family where the female partner is the higher earner or the sole earner, or where it’s the father who wants to submerge himself in Monday-to-Friday baby bonding.
The new government would ideally start by introducing a period of paid paternity leave, to be taken after the baby’s birth. The next step is the introduction of flexible maternity leave transfers, which in my view is no longer a question of encouraging the greater involvement of Irish fathers in their children’s lives – it’s actually about facilitating a desire that’s already there. To paraphrase the Fine Gael manifesto, it would mean catching up with the needs of parents. It’s not compulsory; it’s just about what suits, what fits.
Why would maternity leave transfers benefit all women, not just mothers? Employers like the rules on leave to be as gender-rigid as possible, so they can “plan ahead”, which is a phrase that’s cropped up in the UK debates on the issue. This “planning” essentially means cost-based discrimination against women in the workplace – and by cost-based discrimination, I mean the practice whereby companies limit the number of women they appoint and promote primarily to minimise the risk that they might all decide to breed their own Von Trapp singing troupes.
Even if you work for an employer that doesn’t stipulate “Y-chromosome necessary” on the application form, the current rules perpetuate a state-sanctioned culture of motherhood that means legions of your female colleagues – whether they want to or not – will not only disappear from view during their maternity leave, but follow a well-trodden path that starts with job-sharing and ends with the disillusionment of under-promotion. The disillusioned ones may not necessarily be the mothers – after all, they’ll have their children to pour their creative and administrative energies into – but the full-time women stuck in a work atmosphere of intensifying machismo.
The sooner Ireland follows the UK and allows the transfer of leave entitlements, the better. Affordable childcare options are probably going to be another decade’s work.