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.)

It is an inflexible arrangement, based around one particular family set-up which just doesn’t suit everyone in terms of what they want or can afford

There are many assumptions implicit in this: that the mother will care for the baby and her partner will, presumably, be the breadwinner. What if the mother wants to return to work and her partner wants to take some of the leave, when the baby is a few months old? The law doesn’t allow for that; the leave is lost. What if the partner desperately wants to take even two weeks off, but the family can’t afford for its sole income to drop to £117 a week? The law doesn’t allow for that.

There are, of course, thousands of families for whom the leave allowances work perfectly well as they currently stand, and I don’t intend to criticise them. However it is an inflexible arrangement, based around one particular family set-up which just doesn’t suit everyone in terms of what they want or can afford.

An Equal Opportunities Commission poll in 2005 found that a third of men were unhappy with the amount of leave available to them. This number would probably increase considerably if there was a cultural expectation for men to play a larger part in childcare. An arrangement which wasn’t based on the assumption that the mother will always be taking the leave – and which didn’t specifically prevent men from being allowed more than two weeks’ leave to bond with their new baby – would benefit everyone, as I’ll outline below.

I’ll mainly be referring to the mother’s partner as male here &150; even though the mother’s partner taking ‘paternity leave’ doesn’t have to be male. This is simply because when papers report on new parents’ childcare and employment division issues, it just seems to be boiled down to men’s vs women’s (i.e. mothers’ vs fathers’) wants and needs. There’s very little written on women as the partner of a new mother. Naturally a ‘separate spheres’ argument for the current division of allowed leave makes even less sense for same-sex couples.

Where the mother’s partner is male, the legislative approach to parental leave additionally strengthens &150; and gives legal weight – to harmful stereotypes. These stereotypes, as well as the indirect harm that all stereotypes cause, directly hit women in the pocket. It may be illegal to discriminate against women in pay and conditions, or in hiring and promotion, but this is not easy to prove or enforce.

UK Independence Party MEP Godfrey Bloom infamously said: “No self-respecting small businessman with a brain in the right place would ever employ a lady of child-bearing age.” If an elected representative &150 of a party that wants UK law to be supreme, no less &150; is happy to encourage people to break that law and insult those who don’t, then it’s pretty likely that hundreds of unscrupulous employers are following his advice. Stricter enforcement of the existing laws would help, of course, but actually proving that discrimination has occurred is quite tricky. It would be better to remove the incentive to break the law in the first place.

Nicola Brewer of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission was widely misreported in the Press for attempting to point this out (the Press, naturally, couldn’t resist the “look, women, feminism is bad for you” angle even if they had to make it themselves), saying: “But the effect [of the current system of maternity and paternity leave] has been to reinforce some traditional patterns. The Work and Families Act has not freed parents and given them real choice. It is based on assumptions, and some of the terms reinforce the traditional pattern of women as the carers of children.”

Any employee of any company could become ill for an unknown period of time, at any time, without warning. At least with maternity and paternity leave the employer generally finds out well in advance that the leave will be taken

The problems with the current leave allowances are not new, of course. Back in 2000, Helen Wilkinson of the Industrial Society (now the Work Foundation) said: “Whilst we have a scheme of paid maternity leave and unpaid parental leave we are discriminating against men as fathers in the workplace. […] We are also reinforcing gender inequality between women and men and reinforcing the pay gap, hence women are not actually getting the equality that they deserve in the workplace. Delivering equality for women in the workplace actually means giving men parallel rights as parents.”

The suggestion usually made – by the Industrial Society back in 2000, and by several groups since – when considering reform of new parent’s leave is to look at the European countries which have equal (or near-equal) leave allowances for the mother and her partner.

In Sweden, there are 450 days of leave available to new parents, of which the first 360 are paid at 80% of salary. Either the mother or her partner may take any of this leave (except for the first 30 days each which may not be transferred).

In Norway, new parents are entitled to either 12 months at 80% of salary, or 10 months at full salary. The mother must take six weeks, and her partner four weeks, but the rest may be taken by either.

In Iceland, both the mother and her partner get three months, and then there is a further three months which either may take.

In Denmark, there are a total of 52 weeks available, of which at least 18 must be taken by the mother, and at least two by her partner.

It’s probably not a coincidence that all four of these countries are well ahead of the UK in economic (and general) equality for women. The World Economic Forum‘s Gender Gap Index placed them as the top four in 2005, and all above the UK in 2006 and 2007. It’s not that maternity leave arrangements alone make the difference, of course, but it does go some way to show those countries’ stronger commitments to gender equality.

Also of note, is that Sweden and Norway both give large amounts of well-paid leave, reflecting that raising a child is in fact work, and should be paid as such. The economies of these four countries have not collapsed as a result of providing this leave, and neither have their small businesses. It’s important to pay attention to this, as a lot of the resistance to improving maternity and paternity leaves comes from small business owners.

What about making the entirety of the current leave transferable (with the exception of any part necessary for the mother’s health)? This is a small change, and should have very little cost

It’s interesting to compare new parents’ leave and sick leave in this respect: any employee of any company could become ill for an unknown period of time, at any time, without warning. At least with maternity and paternity leave the employer generally finds out well in advance that the leave will be taken. Yet employers rarely complain (in public, at least) about providing sick leave, and no-one ever suggests that employers should avoid, for example, hiring people with dangerous hobbies in case an injury takes them off work for a while.

So what should be done to improve the situation in the UK? Ideally, paternity leave would be raised to be the same as maternity leave, with a large transferable element to allow flexibility, and a much higher level of statutory pay. However introducing this extra leave could have a significant extra cost to the government. In the current economy that might be difficult to find right now, even if in the long run it should pay for itself and more in greater employee morale, productivity and health.

As an intermediate measure, then, what about making the entirety of the current leave transferable (with the exception of any part necessary for the mother’s health)? This is a small change, and should have very little cost. Six weeks of 90% of a man’s salary is statistically likely to be larger than six weeks of a woman’s salary, if the couple chooses to take their leave that way, and there’s nothing wrong with giving the government a direct financial incentive of its own to close the pay gap!

Employers, especially those who’ve thought that they were playing the system by not hiring women, might complain, but, as Mary Ann Stephenson of Fawcett pointed out, “Employers often complain, they complained when women had equal pay they would no longer employ them, they complained when maternity leave was first introduced they would no longer employ women. Actually employment amongst women has gone up.” Anyway, if they were discriminating unfairly before, it serves them right.

In fact, if new parent’s leave was shared more fairly, some of the ways it might be used could actually benefit the employers too. As an example, a couple where the mother earns more than her partner, and both work full-time, might choose to have the mother take the six weeks at 90% pay, her partner takes six weeks at statutory pay, and then they both take several weeks part-time (at half statutory pay and half their salaries). The couple benefits because they’re more easily able to share childcare while maintaining an income higher than the statutory pay, and their employers benefit because the full-time leave taken is relatively short.

It’s possible that, if enough MPs were convinced of the need for shared leave, it could be introduced soon

The idea that new parents’ leave should be at least partly shared for flexibility, and that the mother’s partner should get a non-token amount is not new, but despite repeated suggestions from employers’ organisations such as the Work Foundation, feminist groups such as Fawcett, and even government-funded groups such as the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, it hasn’t so far got on to the legislative calendar.

UK Political parties have a range of views: the Green Party supports moving to flexible shared leave, as do the Conservatives (who propose a Denmark-like system). The Liberal Democrats investigated the idea in 2006 and decided that in the long-term shared leave like Sweden would be best – however, they also decided that it would be too expensive to implement at present. Labour, despite the increases in maternity and paternity leave that they have already introduced, appear to have no plans to move to a shared system beyond their current proposals to make the last six months somewhat transferable.

This could be changed, however. The EHRC has raised the public profile of the issue again. It’s possible that, if enough MPs were convinced of the need for shared leave, it could be introduced soon.

So what can you do? Write to your MP, sign the petition to the Prime Minister, make sure your opinion is heard. The more people that show how important they find this issue, the more likely it is that things will improve.

The current system of leave allocated to new parents is hampered by stereotyped laws that encourage workplace discrimination. The benefits of moving towards a more flexible system of leave are immediately obvious for new parents, but perhaps more important are the cultural changes which this would encourage in society, and which will benefit everyone.

Jennifer Gray is an astronomer. She’s a Libra, so thinks everything should be fair and balanced, and is a co-maintainer of the site Equal Rights. She has no children yet, but thinks the law should make new parents’ leave more flexible so each family can choose individually what works best for them