Nick Clegg’s confirmed that from April, fathers will be able to take any remaining maternity leave if mothers return to work early, up to a maximum of six months. If the notion of fathers taking maternity leave sounds like an odd idea that won’t work, you’re right – the UK will be the only country in the world with a system like this and we already know hardly any parents will use it.
The policy has three major aims. Firstly, to let mums and dads make their own decisions about who looks after the kids and who works. Secondly, to reduce discrimination against women created by the current maternity system (or more simply, to make men as unpopular with employers as women already are). The new system also aims to make it possible for fathers to become more involved in the lives of their children.
The Labour government, which created it, ran a study into how effective the new system would be, and found that only 6% of fathers would use it and that it would affect 0.7% of small businesses. The coalition already know it won’t really work, so within weeks, they’ll launch a consultation on a completely new system of parental leave, to be introduced by 2015.
Until now, the law has basically been saying, if you’re a mum, you look after the kids, if you’re a dad, we expect you to work. It doesn’t matter if your family is different – we expect you all to fit into this industrial society model of family life where mums do kids and dads do work. We currently have the most gender-unequal system of leave in the world, so if you’re a couple who’d like to do things differently, tough. The UK and its couples have moved on – in one-third of families, the woman earns the same as, or more than, her partner, so the system badly needs to adapt and offer more choice.
This huge leave gap between men and women hurts women’s prospects and fuels the gender pay gap. In 2003, the Labour government introduced two weeks of paternity leave and extended maternity leave to twelve months. I was lobbying for what is now The Fatherhood Institute and I warned them that it was a terrible deal for women that would worsen employer discrimination against them. Within five years, the head of the UK’s equality body reported that employers were, indeed discriminating against women because of a maternity system that indicated responsibility for babies is women’s alone.
Recently there has been a wealth of new research evidence showing what most people know instinctively – good relationships with their fathers (or male role models) help children prosper. Their performance at school improves, they have a better relationships in adulthood, boys are less likely to get involved in gangs or criminal behaviour and girls are less likely to get pregnant young and unintentionally. Mums are crying out for their men to be more involved in their children’s lives, as are many men themselves. But the leave system has been one among many obstacles to this happening.
For all these reasons, the UK needs a new parental leave system that allows couples to decide for themselves who takes time out of the workplace to care for their babies, beyond an initial period for women to cope with the late stages of pregnancy, birth and recovery from that.
But families will not take this new system up in serious numbers. Most will not risk the father’s career prospects – on average, men earn two thirds of the family income, so if there’s any sniff of disapproval in the workplace or hint that he might lose out in the long term career stakes, they won’t touch it. There’s plenty of evidence that employers are more hostile to requests for family friendly working from men than from women. And that’s not to mention the short term loss of his income.
Furthermore, because the government is tinkering with the existing leave entitlements instead of rewriting the whole system, this is maternity leave we’re asking men to take, and to take it away from women, who remain effectively responsible for babies while men remain positioned as ‘helpers’ in the world of parenting. This is not a system that will create the necessary cultural change to enable men to engage more equally in the care of their infants – that requires a little more investment.
In Sweden, they moved from a maternity/paternity system to a parental leave system back in 1975, with clearly stated aims of looking after the welfare of children and promoting gender equality. Over the years, they’ve developed a system of ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ months, which are paid at a decent rate, only available to one of the parents and lost if not used. There are currently three mummy and daddy months each, and a further 12 months of parental leave which can be divided up as the parents see fit. It has taken a generation, but nowadays, most fathers take months of time off work to look after their children (on their own) and the result has been that children are closer to their fathers, and it is now culturally unacceptable for a dad not to take a serious amount of time off to look after their babies.
Just as promoting women’s equal participation in public life and the economy took pro-active steps to overcome legal and institutional barriers, so getting men equally involved in domestic life and parenting takes conscious effort. In a highly gendered sphere such as parenting, even gender neutral policies tend to reinforce inequalities – you need to be proactively combating gender imbalances. This new system is not even gender neutral – it actively reinforces the inequalities. So we’re still going backwards.
The new measures may look radical on paper, but they won’t change much. Tinkering at the edges of the leave system is just creating a bigger mess, which employers will have to cope with. The UK leave system needs a complete rethink from the ground up starting with a few basic questions: What do babies need from their parents? How do we protect women through the vulnerable period of childbirth and how do we enable choice and equality while encouraging men to be more involved with their children? And how do we keep things simple for employers? As soon as this new system is in place, the government will be ripping it up and starting again. Why bother?
This is a slightly expanded version of an article I wrote for the Western Mail newspaper / Wales Online