Could women actually be the losers from maternity leave
Where the heart dares to tread, politicians’ chequebooks follow in an election year. Tony Abbot embraced his (sort of) inner feminist on Monday announcing his proposed maternity leave plan that would see women paid up to $150,000 for six months’ at home after their baby is born.
This, on the heels of Kevin Rudd’s maternity leave proposal that offers women the minimum wage of $544 for 18 weeks, due for delivery in January in 2011, is surely good news for women and men keen to do their bit of our nation’s population growth.
But in this mad scramble to win the hearts and minds and bank accounts of “working families” have Rudd and Abbot paused to consider whether maternity leave is necessarily a positive thing for women?
In the UK Gordon Brown is hustling legislation through parliament in the lead up to May general election that would offer working parents a greater right to demand flexible working hours from employers.
This follows changes to maternity and paternity leave in the UK in recent years that now provide women with six weeks at 90% of their average pay, followed by 33 weeks at the statutory rate of 123 pounds a week, and can further extend this up to 52 weeks with the remainder unpaid. Parents also have the option of transferring the last six months of maternity leave to the father.
But, in putting their best maternally minded hat on, are bureaucrats stymieing women’s fortunes in the workplace?
Nicola Brewer, the UK’s chief executive of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, has argued that more generous maternity leave provisions hamper women’s ability to navigate their way up the professional ladder. Brewer told the Times last year “The thing I worry about is that the current legislation and regulations have had the unintended consequence of making women a less attractive prospect to employers.”
Addressing a parliamentary enquiry last year, Nichola Pease, the Deputy Chairman of JO Hambro capital management and a mother of three children horrified many people when she commented, “We have to be realistic and make sure the protection around women doesn’t end up backfiring”.
Vogue UK editor Alexandra Shulman, penned a piece last year entitled, “Year-long maternity leave, flexi hours, four day weeks… why would ANY boss hire a woman?” In it she writes about her exasperation at having to accommodate the demands of the mothers’ she employs, “A full-time jobs means full-time work - not doing the school run as someone else solves the latest office crisis”
Shulman says, “I met a woman last week who heads up a small company. ‘You’re not allowed to say it, but the reality is that the maternity situation is a nightmare’.”
She quotes Anya Hindmarch, an internationally-renowned businesswoman and owner of her eponymous fashion company as saying, “If we are not careful (and I speak as a mother and an employer), maternity leave and benefits will become too biased towards the mother and not considerate enough for the employer. In which case, it can start to work against women as it becomes too complicated and expensive to employ them. To me, it shouts of shooting ourselves in the foot.’”
Shulman argues that women’s expectation they can wander off to have a baby leaving colleagues to bear the brunt of responsibility, followed by the assumption they could stroll back into the office and take up where things left off was far unfair to both employers and colleagues.
Shulman summed up the taboo around this topic, “It’s barely acceptable to write this piece at all- and probably impossible for a man”.
A report entitled “Why Are There So Few Top Female Executives in Egalitarian Welfare States?” published by Sweden’s Research Institute of Industrial Economics reviewed women’s workforce participation in Anglo-Saxon countries (US, the UK, Canada and Australia) compared to Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland), which famously provide much more generous family leave benefits.
The report found that there were higher percentages of female executives in countries that offered women less maternal leave benefits. They found that as of 2007, women accounted for 29.7% of managerial roles in Scandinavian countries as opposed to 40.8% in Anglo-Saxon countries.
The report’s authors Magnus Henrekson and Mikael Stenkula conclude, “Broad-based welfare state policies impede women’s representation in elite competitive positions.” They go on to put in the bluntest of academic argot, “broad welfare state policy promotes high female labor force participation, but blunts incentives to pursue top executive positions in the business sector”.
The consequences of providing greater maternity leave go beyond potentially damaging the career prospects of women. Offering mothers more time at home with their children serves to reinforce the traditional role of women as the central caregiver, sidelining and diminishing the role of fathers Nicola Brewer argues.
Then there is the question of women who have no intention of having children. How is an employer to know whether a female candidate for a position has no desire to become a mother? Employers will end up treating all women on this side of menopause with the same suspicion as their nappy-happy colleagues.
Ramming fistfuls of dollars at women does not in anyway addresses the issues involved in providing ongoing and affordable care for children when women do decide to rejoin the land of Outlook Express.
Easing the financial burden of taking time off to have a child is all very applause-worthy, but Tony and Kevin, it’s time to look a little closer at whether the chequebook can solve this one.
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