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Jennifer Gray argues that parental leave laws must become more flexible

In Victorian times, the ‘separate spheres’ idea was popular: men were naturally good at working and leading, women were naturally good at domestic tasks, and everyone would be happy if they all stuck to that. Now, of course, people expressing the same idea as a universal truth are criticised, and in the last few decades there has been a lot of legislation to protect people from unfair discrimination.

In among all of this change, however, one ‘separate spheres’ idea has stuck, been reinforced and rarely been questioned at a government level: childcare. Women are responsible for childcare; men are generally not. It’s expected that even if both parents work, the mother will be primarily responsible for childcare. This stereotyping starts very early indeed, with the allocation of maternity and paternity leave.

Parental leave entitlements In the UK are the most asymmetric in Europe. The mother gets six weeks of maternity leave paid at 90% of her weekly salary; a further 33 weeks at the statutory maternity pay level (£117.18 a week, or 90% of salary if this is lower); and a further 13 weeks unpaid. The current government has taken several steps to increase this amount, and the proportion that is paid, and this is commendable. The mother’s partner gets two weeks at the statutory pay level and no more. (Despite being called paternity leave, the partner doesn’t have to be the father, and doesn’t have to be male.)

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