Men need longer paternity leave if we're serious about achieving gender equality

21 Jul 2014

In October 2013, David Cameron (half-heartedly, and with a vested interest in the outcome) claimed to be a feminist. He has since retracted this claim, which is kind of a shame and kind of not a shame. It would have been nice to have a feminist Prime Minister, but only if said feminist PM was committed to running the country on feminist principles, which the PM in question isn't, so that's that.


However, say Dave was a feminist. What could he do to drive the country closer towards total gender equality, whilst at the same time getting #HardworkingPeople back into work, boosting businesses and ensuring the continuing success of the nation's #LongTermEconomicPlan? Three words: extend paternity leave.

It's very simple. Currently, our paternity pay and leave system is anachronistic and counter-productive: it oppresses women and doesn't allow men to do their fair share of work bringing up their children.

The section on paternity pay and leave on the website states: “When you take time off because your partner’s having a baby or adopting a child you might be eligible for: 1 or 2 weeks paid Ordinary Paternity Leave [and] up to 26 weeks’ paid Additional Paternity Leave.” However, prospective fathers are only entitled to Additional Paternity Leave 'if the mother/co-adopter returns to work' and both prospective parents 'may not both get leave and pay.'

For a number of reasons, Britain's current paternity pay system is a huge problem for our society.

Firstly, it is furthering gender inequality by casting women in the role which they have been placed since the dawn of time; in the wife and mother who stays at home, brings up the children and has the husband's dinner on by the time he gets home from work.

Equally as damaging, it casts men in the role they have occupied for the same length of time; that of the worker who provides for his family. It teaches men that bringing up children is 'women's work' and that it is not their job to play an active role in raising their infant offspring (well, not at least until they start walking and talking and being interesting).

Furthermore, the system which forces men to make a decision between working or bringing up their children has far more profound implications for women.

Kirstie Alllsop's comments earlier this year that young women should put university and having a career on the backburner and settle down and have babies while they're young were met frostily by feminists, but were depressingly symptomatic of the culture we live in, which teaches young women that they have to make a choice between having a career and having a family.

Of course there are amazing, incredible women who have successful careers and bring up children at the same time, but for each one of those super-women, there is a talented, intelligent, driven young woman who gave up on her career to have children. It doesn't have to be this way.

In October 2013, the World Economic Forum released its latest global gender-gap report, and it found that the countries with the strongest economies are those which have shown social ambition and have succeeded in finding ways to further women's careers, close the gender pay-gap and get women back into work after giving birth. One of the main ways in which this has been achieved is through increased paternity leave for men.

In 2002, California made history by becoming the first U.S state to offer six weeks of paid paternity leave for both mothers and fathers. This system is paid for by a small payroll-tax contribution from workers affected by it; would it be out of the question for George Osborne to entertain a similar tax ahead of his next budget?

Osborne, who may still fancy himself a future Prime Minister, could do a lot worse than follow the lead of Barack Obama, whose recent establishment of the Equal Pay Task Force showed his commitment, at least in a primary stage, of actually doing something about gender inequality as opposed to just talking about it.

Of course, just because it would be of great benefit to both women and men for men to have more paternity leave, doesn't mean men will take it- even if it's offered to them on a plate. In 2001, the percentage of fathers in Quebec taking paternity leave was just 10%. Then, in 2006, the Quebec government increased the financial benefits of taking paternity leave, scrapped gender neutral paternity leave (which had become de facto maternity leave) and offered five weeks paternity leave which could only be taken by men, and in 2010, the number of prospective fathers in Quebec taking paternity leave hit 80%.

The key thing is to teach men that taking paternity leave does not in any sense make them 'less of a man', it makes them more of a man. Many men are hesitant about taking extended periods of paternity leave, or time off work at all, to help bring up their children because they worry about the reaction from their colleagues.

If men can break away from the patriarchal ideals of our stereotyped gender roles and push for further paternity rights, the benefits they will go on to see will be immeasurable; a stronger economy with more opportunities, a happier household as their partners become increasingly fulfilled in their career as well as their domestic life and the happy satisfaction of learning new skills during their time spent at home and becoming better fathers as a result.

Someone close to me, an incredibly clever, driven, ambitious woman with a clear idea of what she wants to do in life and where she wants to go, who gave birth at the end of last year, was told by a friend currently working in her chosen industry that 'you have to do it all'.

For women, that is true and it always well be. But 'doing it all' does not, and should not, mean choosing between family and career. Gender equality can seem like this broad generalistic term that means so many things and feels far away, but everything has a starting point and extending paternity leave seems a perfect one for Britain.

By Alex Shilling

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