A (baby) step forward for working moms

by Molly Borowitz

For we Equal Writers—most of whom are ambitious women at a prestigious university—the working mom is a pretty contentious topic. Because we don’t have government-regulated healthcare in the United States (yet), maternity leave is not a standardized health benefit: some companies offer six weeks with pay, some three months, some none at all. When I was born, my mom had to pool all her vacation time in order to get enough leave.

In the UK, however, the government mandates that women are afforded up to one year for maternity leave, if they want it, while retaining the right to return to their jobs. And, as of 2007, they are paid for nine of the twelve months they spend away from work. However, this week the British government has decided to provide new parents with an additional option: paternity leave. As of 15 September, new moms will be able to decide whether they want to transfer the second half of their maternity leave to their husbands: after six months, Mommy can head back to work and leave Daddy at home with the baby.

This new policy, an initiative of the left-leaning Labour party, is intended to provide families with greater flexibility and improve their child-care options. According to Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour party, “Mothers will be able to choose to transfer the last six months of their maternity leave to the father, with three months paid. This gives families radically more choice and flexibility in how they balance work and care of children, and enables fathers to play a bigger part in bringing up their children.”

In theory, I think this plan is excellent; as Ms. Harman states, it has the potential to encourage fathers to take a more active parental role in their children’s lives. In a January post on Sarah Palin and Caroline Kennedy, Elizabeth Wurtzel of the Daily Beast reminds us that (at least in the United States) moms are almost always the primary caregivers, even when they work as many hours as their husbands. Despite their additional responsibilities, they still manage the household, “delegating tasks to the father, who needs a list of instructions before he doles out child care.” In this regard, Britain’s proposed post-natal-child-care handoff is reminiscent of the Equal Parenting movement, providing dads with the opportunity to assume the primary-caregiver role and to develop the know-how to balance child-care responsibilities with their wives.

In practice, however, I sincerely doubt that many British parents will take advantage of this new scheme for the equalization of parental responsibility. The wage gap is just too powerful. Fathers are usually the bigger earners; in fact, Wurtzel goes so far as to say that “there is salary penalty on motherhood: A woman with children will typically earn 10 percent less than any man doing the same job.” Let’s do the math. Under option A (Mom takes one year of maternity leave with nine months paid), during the first nine months, Dad works and Mom gets paid time off; during the last three months, Dad works and Mom earns nothing. Under option B (Mom takes one year of maternity leave but switches with Dad after six months), during the first six months, Dad works and Mom gets paid time off; during the next three months, Mom works and Dad gets paid time off; and during the last three months, Mom works and Dad gets zilch. Assuming that Mom has the smaller salary, it actually hurts the family financially to make the six-month switch—and in this difficult economy, it’s hard to imagine that many new parents are going to take advantage of an option that lessens their total income, no matter how gender-equalizing it might be.

9 comments for “A (baby) step forward for working moms

  1. Ros
    September 17, 2009 at 10:38 am

    I think that’s pretty great, actually.

    I also think that saying that this won’t do much is kind of overlooking the point – the fact that it’s an option means that some people will go for it, and the more people go for it the less stigma there is. I know this isn’t the norm, but there are a lot of couples I know (including mine) the mother makes considerably more money, and having this sort of option would be incredibly practical.

    As a general rule, though, I’m oddly in favor of options that mean that women aren’t automatically assumed to be the ones doing the bulk of the childcare. So, yay Britain. Now to work so that more people are in a situation where they can take advantage of this… :)

  2. Bakka
    September 17, 2009 at 11:13 am

    I really liked this post and I think it is great to offer substantial parental leave. I also appreciate the point about the possible effects of the wage gap on whether fathers will take the leave (Ann Cudd makes a similar point in her article “Oppression by Choice” which I highly recommend).

    But I think the pessimism may not be entirely warranted. Canada has had paid parental leave for both spouses since 2001 and so there has been time to evaluate the program, which you can find here http://bit.ly/q2DKc

    There is a pretty high percentage of fathers who are taking up the benefit, especially in Quebec (55%). Other European countries also have a pretty high-uptake depending on how the plans are implemented: e.g. Sweden (90% participation rate), Norway (89%) and Iceland (84%). This study also sites the wage gap as a barrier to up-take in countries where it is low: e.g. Belgium has a paternal participation rate of under 7%, Austria, 2% and France, 1%.

  3. Lyndsay
    September 17, 2009 at 11:18 am

    I can only hope that the next step is to give dads three months that don’t take away from the mom. In Canada (or just Ontario?) dads who work for government get three months paid off. I just wish that could be extended to the rest of the population. The issues are paying them and getting someone trained to take over for them. It’s not like there aren’t enough people out there who want to work in this recession.

  4. Nentuaby
    September 17, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    A woman with children will typically earn 10 percent less than any man doing the same job.

    I keep seeing things similar to this in discussion of pay inequality, and the pecise comparison strikes me as a bit odd. A lot of people like to say seniority lost to maternity leave adequately explains the wage gap (as if penalizing women for their gender directly is unacceptable, but penalizing a vital social role only one sex can fulfill is totally reasonable >.>). Yet the comparison is always either women in general, or mothers, vs. men. Does anyone here know where to find statistics directly comparing mothers vs. childfree women?

  5. martini_5697
    September 17, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    In Ontario, “Both new parents have the right to take parental leave of up to 35 or 37 weeks of unpaid time off work.” (from http://www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/es/guide/guide_11.html), but this is unpaid leave, so economics still rule. But this allows the parents more flexibility in arranging the leave… they can both be off for the first month, and when Mom is heading back to work, Dad can stay home for a couple of months (I know a couple families where the Dad has taken 2 months when Mom goes back to work). This seems like a better option than mandating a 50/50 split, since it allows the family to balance time and paycheques to suit them the best.

    And of course, ‘Dad’ in the above can be a second parent who is not “Dad”, and adoptive parents get the same parental leave (except for the medical portion of the leave that only applies if you personally have given birth). From the same website linked above:

    “A “parent” includes:
    – a birth parent;
    – an adoptive parent (whether or not the adoption has been legally finalized); or
    – a person who is in a relationship of some permanence with a parent of the child and who plans on treating the child as his or her own. This includes same-sex couples.”

  6. ShelbyWoo
    September 18, 2009 at 11:52 am

    some companies offer six weeks with pay, some three months, some none at all.

    I think the use of “some” here is rather misleading and seriously understates the problem Only a small percentage of U.S. employers offer paid maternity/paternity leave of any kind. The overwhelming majority of U.S. employers do not – well more than “some.” Obviously, the author of the post rightly sees this a a huge problem, it’s just the wording of that statement doesn’t properly portray the state of maternity leave in the U.S.

  7. Alara Rogers
    September 18, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    I think that for a *first* child, very little of the wage gap will have kicked in yet. Single women make 94 cents to the male dollar, and *most* of the differential is accounted for by various mommy penalties. If a couple has this option available with their first child, and their salaries haven’t dramatically diverged yet, it may be a way to prevent their salaries from diverging terribly.

    If mom already makes significantly less than dad, either because she entered a lower-paying profession in the first place (“female”-coded professions make less than “male”-coded professions of equal educational requirement) or because they already have kids, then it might not make sense for dad to take the time. But some dads will make time. Men get burned out and fed up with their jobs too, and one reason women drop out of the workforce when they have kids is the feeling of “why am I putting up with this bullshit when I could go home to a baby that loves me?” Give men the option to opt out of the bullshit and go home to a baby that loves them for a while, and *some* of them will take it… and the more that take it, the more will feel comfortable taking it.

  8. Nikita
    September 21, 2009 at 9:24 am

    Just as a side note… the ‘unpaid leave’ in Ontario is covered by Employment Insurance (EI) which we pay into from each paycheck. For the mother there is 17 weeks of pregnancy leave followed by 35 of parental leave (the parental leave can be shared by both parents). This entire 52 weeks is covered by EI. It isn’t a large amount of money (max benefit is currently $447 per week and is taxable bringing it down to $393; it is calculated based on the amount earned in the 26 weeks prior to the day the leave starts) but it is usually enough to help the new parents who are used to two incomes for the year.

    Also, some companies (mostly government and unions, not usually private corporations/small businesses) “top up” the employee so that in addition to the EI they receive up to a certain percentage of their salary. This is also taxable so usually the first year after the maternity/parental leave gives you a larger tax bill than in other years.

    Last week in Ontario one couple with newborn twins earned the right to double the parental leave giving them 35 weeks each. This does not set a precedence as it was not a legal battle, just a hearing, but it is definitely a promising step forward in realizing the importance of supporting families.

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