Parental Leave in the UK – A Step Forward

In my first year at university, I came across a career magazine, in one of those information packs designed to provide graduates with advice about their future career choices. An article caught my eye – “The 20 Best Companies for Women”. Intrigued, I had a look. One thing was clear, a key element of the criteria used to choose these companies was maternity policies. Jaguar and Land Rover were mentioned, where women were offered an entire year off, on full pay. Accenture offered nine months maternity leave on full pay, with attractive benefits to entice women to return to the company after their leave was up. Such policies were hailed as a blessing for working women, the perfect way for them to combine their careers with having a family.

This was just over four years ago, and though I was only a budding feminist then, something niggled at me. Why is it assumed that women are the ones who have primary responsibility of the family? And surely, the more attractive your maternity package seems to you, the more unattractive you seem to your employer. Guess who’s going to own the important project that requires long-term commitment? I can tell you who it won’t be – the pregnant employee, that’s who. Or even the potentially pregnant employee.

When I found out about the law regarding paternity leave, I was flabbergasted. Across the UK, women are entitled to a total of 52 weeks of maternity leave, some of which may be unpaid. Men are entitled to merely 2. Two! That’s hardly time enough for a relaxing holiday, let alone looking after and bonding with your child, and caring for your partner, who is recovering from delivery. It also removes all choice from the relationship. The mother has to take on the role of primary caregiver, and the father has to don the suit of the breadwinner; it makes too much economic sense for a family to choose otherwise. And that reinforces the familiar pattern – the woman is the victim of unofficial prejudice at work before birth, stagnates in her position during maternity leave, realizes that her job earns less than her husband’s when she returns, and eventually drops out of the workforce. The man is forced back into work, becomes the sole provider of his family, loses the chance to foster a strong bond with his child, and earns the stereotype of being the less caring parent. It’s all too predictable.

Which is why this article from the BBC fills me with delight.

Finally, a choice! Of course, this is just a first step towards a long and potentially difficult change, but it’s definitely worth celebrating. I do understand employers’ concerns though, that completely ad-hoc parental leave-taking would wreak havoc on management strategies, with no ability to plan for these sudden absences. I have a rudimentary proposal (if you’re listening, Nick Clegg) which is this:

1. So there is a maximum of one year’s parental leave.

2. It is the employee’s responsibility to let his/her company know once they become aware that a child is on the way.

3. During this time, the couple decides how the leave will be split. 50/50? 70/30? 60/40? 100/0? Whichever they choose, the leave has to be taken as a chunk, not split into little chunks.

4. The couple informs their respective employers of their plans, which has to be confirmed x number of weeks in advance, to enable the company to make the necessary arrangements.

Sounds perfect in an ideal world. I suspect though, that despite such purely egalitarian rules, deeply embedded cultural prejudices will still result in women taking much more leave off than men, which makes Clegg’s “use it or lose it” blocks of leave especially reserved for fathers rather appealing.

I guess I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled in 2015. At the moment, I just have a smile on my face.

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