Traditionally women have been seen as the primary caretakers of children, whilst men the breadwinners, something that is still reflected by current statistics. In March 2021, 650,000 women took parental leave, compared to just 170,000 men.
The ‘fear’ of maternity leave has often been cited as one of the reasons for gender based pay inequality, and despite offering the option for both sexes since 2003, it is still overwhelmingly the women who take it, reinforcing the stereotype that enters into salary and hiring practices.
The above statistics were the lowest in 10 years, so it’s safe to assume that this problem isn’t going to fix itself. So how do we fix parental leave inequality?
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You or me?
The first problem with parental leave is that it is always up to the potential parents to make the difficult decision of who should take on the role of primary caregiver. The problem is that for the sake of practicality, the partner with the highest salary is the most likely to stay at work, and due to already existing inequality and bias, that person is most likely to be male.
Part of this is visibility; if you are the one who is pregnant, it cannot be hidden after a few months. People will ask questions, the biggest being: do you intend to keep working?
This question is underpinned by many personal biases, but the angle often used on would-be parents is their competence. It is assumed that if you take a break your skills will become outdated; and that your employer will be footing the bill for a less qualified employee.
The so called ‘pregnancy penalty’ results from pointed questions such as these, with evidence showing women in the UK returning from pregnancy earn 28% less in their first year and up to 45% less in the six years following childbirth.
Many women simply cease work entirely. A study conducted by the University of Bristol found that only 27.8% of women from more than 3,500 new parents were still in full-time work or self-employed three years after childbirth, compared to 90% of new fathers. Men were also twice as likely to receive a promotion or to have moved to a better job.
Fathers are rewarded, mothers are not, which only serves to reinforce the stereotype and division. Research shows that men are more likely to take leave if it is non-transferable and compensated at or near 100 percent of salary, showing that statistics of income still very much dictate the practicality of who takes leave.
It is also worth pointing out that fathers are only rewarded because they keep working. Many face the same fear as a potential mother of what might happen to their career if they take a break, in addition to social stigma surrounding perceived childcare traditions. This unfortunate reality only serves to reinforce existing pay gaps and perpetuate stereotypical expectations.
Levelling the playing field
Offering higher maternity or paternity pay is a good incentive, but it doesn’t level the playing field. Current leave inequality is reinforced by cycles of stigma and tradition that are perpetuated by companies and parents alike, knowingly or unknowingly, whether they like it or hate it.
The best way to incorporate equality is through a shared parental leave scheme. This would reduce bias in hiring decisions and make unequal pregnancy pay a thing of the past.
Shared parental leave schemes lock in both partners to a fixed term of childcare, for example instead of one partner taking 6 months off both take 3. Companies can no longer look at a woman as a potential expense down the road, as now both parents must take leave, thus levelling the playing field.
This has become national policy in Iceland, with parents entitled to 12 months of parental leave between them. They each take six months, with the possibility of swapping one month, e.g. 5 and 7 months instead of 6 and 6.
Choice or change?
There are similar options in many countries but they remain options rather than policy, thus still allowing inherent bias and social norms to perpetuate. In the UK up to 285,000 couples qualify for shared parental leave, but uptake is only around 2%.
As long as men are expected to earn more and play the role of breadwinner, this statistic will not improve. Most companies have statutory maternity/paternity pay but few support shared parental leave, or even know about it.
Having the option clearly isn’t enough to incentivise a change in society, which is why countries such as Iceland made it mandatory for both parents to share a fixed term of childcare responsibility. There is no division, only unity, giving both parents the same potential advantages and disadvantages of an extended leave of absence.
In countries where such policy does not exist, it is up to companies and professionals to communicate openly, in order to rectify the fear, secrecy and inequality that surrounds having a child and a career.
Working parents should be championed not shunned, a child is fresh motivation not a novel distraction. Such employees work even harder, regardless of gender, for the right opportunity.
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