As if there hasn't been quite enough said about the work-life choices women get to make, Nicola Brewer, the chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in Great Britain, ignited a debate about maternity leave and its effect on women's careers this weekend that has landed her in a spot of hot water. Recently, the government decided to change the laws on maternity leave to require employers offer mothers up to a year off instead of the current nine months, which sounds totally great on the surface but for one thing: men get 2 weeks paternity leave. What that means is that the government is sanctioning the expectation that women will be the primary caregivers, making it nearly impossible for men to share in those responsibilities (or to take them over) and doing nothing to advance the cause of actual equality.
Yes, there is a social expectation that women will be the primary caretaker of children, and it's great that the government takes some small steps to allow women to transition more easily back into the workforce and have flexible hours if they want them. But by putting those responsibilities solely on women, the government is basically saying that it is, in fact, a woman's role to be the primary caregiver. That's not actually a great thing for equality.
Duncan Fisher, who heads the British think tank the Fathers Institute, hits the nail on the head with two points: gender stereotypes in child-rearing are reinforced by unequal pay with which women struggle; and "allowing" women to transfer part of their government-mandated leave to their husbands does nothing to give men equal opportunities and continues to reinforce the idea that it is a woman's role.
Furthermore, both Brewer and Fisher pointed out that while it's great for the government to allow people to take leave, both genders struggle with the fact that actually doing so can cause harm to their careers. Brewer notes that many women are being ignored for positions because of the expectation that they will take their full year and ask for flexible hours, while Fisher notes that men are often looked down upon for taking time away from their careers to help rear their children.
It is great for a government to mandate employer-flexibility for parental leave, but it's crappy for both parents and the society as a whole when doing so continues to reinforce the stereotype that child-rearing is "women's work." It's also worse when it's tied up in issues like pay disparities (which the government is also trying to tackle). Parental leave issues are tied to equality both in the workplace and in society as a whole, and caught up in everything from child care costs and availability to the way "flexible" hours are viewed by employers to pay disparities and gender stereotypes. While the government can't mandate that fathers stay home or put an end to stereotypes about the appropriate gender roles in relationships, it could at least try not to reinforce outdated ideas of gender stereotypes like the idea that a stay-at-home dad is something so unusual.
Equality Laws 'Are Now Holding Women Back' [The Times]
Paid Maternity Leave Does Us No Favours Either, Say Fathers [The Times]