In the UK, there’s a proposal afoot to allow either parent to get a parental allowance for most of the first year of a child’s life. Currently, (if I’m reading the UK’s literature right) mothers get the first 6 weeks at 90% pay, and then can take the next 33 weeks at a state allowance (that’s the equivalent of about $200-250/week depending on exchange rate). They can transfer the allowance to fathers after 6 months. The new rules would fit more into the Marissa Mayer model of modern motherhood. If mom only wants to take a few weeks off, and dad is doing primary parent duty, why can’t he collect the parental allowance right away?
It seems like a straightforward bit of revising laws to be gender neutral, with some safeguards. In response to concerns from various non-profits that work with single mothers, the mother will have to actively assign the benefits to the father (you don’t get benefits just for having fathered a child; you have to actually be caring for the baby).
Interestingly, David Cameron is promoting shared parental leave partly to combat the most obvious side effect of the burden that long maternity leaves put on employers: you just don’t hire women in their 20s and 30s. In talking about the idea, Cameron termed this employment discrimination “completely unacceptable and one of the ways to make it not only morally, but economically, unacceptable is to have more shared parental leave.” While you might be able to avoid hiring young women, it gets difficult to avoid hiring men who might father children.
If one is going to have long parental leaves, I have no quibble with offering them to either parent. But what seldom gets discussed in articles on this topic is that long parental leaves are not an unmitigated positive for parents of either gender. The data are pretty clear in the US that when women take even a few years out of the workforce, they suffer quite a penalty upon return. Part of this is because they have trouble finding an equivalent job, which would not be a problem in a parental leave situation (like in the UK), where the job is protected. But part of that penalty is also that your skills and network start to decline the longer you are out of the workforce. If you have two children two years apart, and take a year off with each, that’s two years during a three year period that you could be out. Why wouldn’t this have an effect on your career trajectory? And indeed, while some folks see Sweden, with its long maternity leaves, as a feminist utopia, the proportion of female managers in the private sector is lower there than in the US.
Splitting leaves between parents might be one way to mitigate the damage. Each parent takes 3-4 months, which would not only lead to more equitable parenting, it would reduce the burden on any given business (covering a long leave is often tricky for small employers). But a father taking much of a year off for paternity leave would likely see similar effects to his career as a mother would to hers.
Some folks will find that trade off worthwhile. But in the long run, more flexible thinking about combining work and family might make the whole question of the exact length of leave less relevant for at least some portion of women and men. By working from home, I’ve been able to nurse my three kids for the first year of life. By setting my own hours, I’ve been able to spend lots of time with them while still working close to full-time after the first 6 weeks or so. Not all jobs can be done from home, of course, or at any particular time, but many more can be done that way than are. And as they are, certain notions of what it means to be at work, or at home, start to change — for parents of either gender.
Photo courtesy flickr user fruity monkey