By Anjali Krishnan:
After Anne-Marie Slaughters widely shared and frankly titled article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” and Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book and movement, Lean In, the conversation regarding the unfriendly nature of the workplace towards women gathered support and buzz. Corporates have clearly taken notice as Reuters recently reported that Adobe has joined the list of companies that are offering extended paid maternity leave.
This follows the recent announcement by Netflix where employees are now allowed to take up to a year of either paid maternity or paternity leave. Similarly Microsoft is now offering up to 12 weeks of paid leave for new parents. But is paid maternity leave the correct response to the low percentage of women in influential positions or does it actually add to the discrimination against hiring and promoting mothers?
Although there is barely any debate on whether paid maternity leave should exist at all, this new trend, especially in the tech industry pushes the limits by offering up to a year of paid leave. According to an article in Fortune, even though this has been seen as relatively progressive in America, in Canada all women receive half of their wages for a full year as maternity leave and in 38 other developed countries wages are received for anywhere between five to six months. The article offers solutions such as a social insurance fund but until that becomes a reality, we must get a better grasp on the larger picture of the barriers mothers especially face in the workplace and how much of it is truly countered by a longer maternity leave.
A study published in the American Journal of Sociology finds that when applying for a job, female applicants with children clearly face much lower chances of being selected for the position. The study also found that mothers were judged as significantly “less competent and committed” and that mothers were also held to harsher performance and punctuality standards. Meanwhile, a study was also done on being a father in the workplace and found that men in fatherhood actually experience benefits with regards to advancing their career. So if mothers already face such stigma, there is a possibility that this added cost of needing to provide paid maternity leave for extended periods of time could discourage smaller companies from investing in the female workforce.
I believe the focus of this debate should instead turn inwards towards the family dynamic and division of household labour. If women are to stay competitive, not only are they losing valuable career mobility opportunities during a long absence from work, but they are also indirectly adding to the stereotype of the female workforce being more expensive. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this issue since the choice to work is very personal for the mother especially during the first year of the child’s life, especially because motherhood is no easy task. According to a recent article in The Guardian “in 2013, four times as many women died giving birth around the world than there were casualties in the Syrian conflict.”
By simply assigning an economic consequence to motherhood we minimize the magnitude of complexity and significance of a human delivery. Companies are clearly starting to recognize this need for flexibility but if women are not to play catch up for the rest of their lives there needs to be a systematic change and acceptance of more men taking advantage of these new leave options for a paternity leave. According to another article in The Guardian, 70% of part-time working fathers think there is a social stigma attached to paternity leave. In fact, 40% of men opt out of taking any paternal leave at all. Even as women are aligning themselves with careers, fathers have not restructured their involvement at home even when given access to paid paternal leave. This signals the deep-rooted structural framework of men being excused from childcare. If men begin to take ownership of their role in childcare, the scales may move towards more of a balance rather than being solely tipped towards the mother.
A father’s role, especially in the early years of child development has recently come into the limelight of research. According to NDTV, academic research, based mostly in Europe, has proved paternity helps mothers. “In Norway, women were absent from work less because of sickness if their husbands took longer leaves. In France, mothers were less likely to experience depression. In Sweden, each month of parental leave appeared to increase mothers’ earnings by 6.7 percent, perhaps by helping women focus on work once they return.” Therefore it is essential that in order to compensate for the sacrifices of the mother there is an expectation of childcare put on the father as well.
A company offering these extensive paid leaves for new parents also comes from the self-interest of retaining an experienced workforce and avoiding the expense of retraining new employees. Although paid leave is seen as a progressive step supporting mothers, it will only truly have a positive effect if the stigma attached to paternal leave is also alleviated. Even though mothers have a longer recovery and nourishing period within the first year of a child, paternal care is essential in later years especially if women are to continue to advance their careers.
Companies seek a return on their investment. But if the true goal is to create a world where women can truly “have it all“, then there needs to be an open conversation on the imbalanced division of labour starting from within the household. Children continue to need care and parental supports many years after their first, so if we want all women to have access to their greatest ambitions, it’s time we started focusing on paternal leave and taking pride in the fathers who actually utilize it.