Maternity, paternity or parental leave?

Guest post by Eve Pearce

Maternity Rights and Returning to Work: Challenging Times Ahead

“I wish I hadn’t gone back to work so early”.  Such a common thought and one women will often reserve to the solace of their own minds. When women first discover they are pregnant, they often feel like they can tackle the world. Once the baby arrives, of course, many face their own (and their child’s) vulnerability for the first time. Being a new parent is challenging on a number of levels and women never know how much time they may need with their baby; statistics indicate, for instance, that the world’s developed countries have doubled their rate of premature births since 1995 and this often means longer periods of hospitalization.

Some women can’t wait to get back into the routine of work, sometimes succumbing to the overwhelming pressure to prove that they are as productive as their male counterparts; others grudgingly return, knowing they’re not ready. Many new parents look longingly to countries like Sweden (where both parents have a non-transferable right to 16 weeks’ leave).  Since the introduction of paid paternity leave in Sweden in 1995, mothers’ earnings have increased by 7 per cent, for every month of paternity leave taken by the father. Additionally, divorce and separation rates dropped considerably despite rising in the rest of the world.

The length of paid maternity leave in different countries varies from 50 weeks in Canada to zero weeks in the United States, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland. The nature of parental rights likewise varies greatly according to geographical location; in Spain, for instance, women receive 100 per cent of their salary for the duration of their 16-week maternity leave, yet fathers are entitled to a mere 15 days’ paid leave. In the UK, statutory maternity leave is rather low (women receive 90% of their average weekly earnings before tax for the first six weeks, but the amount drops drastically over the next 33 weeks).

The bleak situation for new parents in the US is slightly mitigated by advances in the states of California and New Jersey, where fathers and mothers who are caregivers are each entitled to six weeks of paid leave. The bill is footed by employees, who contribute a minimal amount into an income replacement insurance program. The system has proven highly successful, though unfortunately, the state leaves are not job-guaranteed.

Parental Leave: Parents Win, the Economy Wins

Public health benefits for mothers taking postpartum leave include increased breastfeeding initiation and duration (which reduces the risk of breast cancer), more positive health ratings, reduced depression, etc. Children, meanwhile, display improved physiological and emotional regulation, and are more likely to be completely immunized. Antenatal leave decreases the odds of pre-term delivery, perinatal mortality, low birth weight (if leave is paid), obstetric complications and primary caesarean deliveries. Paternal leave improves gender equity.

Parental leave also spurs economic growth. It is disheartening that many employers avoid employing young women for fear of their absence post-maternity. As the European Commission concluded, all EU member states could achieve double- digit economic growth (around 35% in the UK and 40% in the Netherlands) by eliminating gender inequity in the workforce.

An Unrecognizable Workplace

One of the toughest challenges for women returning to work is finding that their workplace has changed enormously during their absence. If they have taken a year off, for instance, they will have missed out on important re-training, staff and technical changes. According to the National Children’s Trust, one in three women feel their chances of promotion have been negatively affected by maternity leave; a little over a third find that their relationship with their boss has deteriorated.

Financial Woes

New parents also have to face a whole new set of expenses: childcare, for instance. In the US, as in many parts of the world, childcare is more than the average income can withstand; in Massachusetts, families at 200% of the poverty level spend about 40 per cent of their income on centre-based infant care. An additional source of expense is transport; women who used to take public transport will find that they need a vehicle to take baby to and from daycare; this may mean having to buy a car on finance. Car insurance costs can likewise be crippling. UK women in particular have been hard-hit by the ECJ ruling which forces them to pay the same premiums as men despite statistically being much safer drivers. Considering a child costs around £10,000 a year for UK families, having to pay an additional £500 for a car premium is hardly ideal.

More or Less? What To Want?

The issue of maternity leave and rights is increasingly complex. On the one hand, new mothers don’t wish to be absent from work so long that they hamper their chances of rising up the career ladder; on the other hand, returning before they are truly prepared has serious personal and economic consequences. The following suggestions may be worth considering:

  • Effort should be placed on cross-training employees to enable them to temporarily take over parents’ functions while they are on leave.
  • Greater importance should be given to parental (rather than just maternity) leave.
  • Parents should enjoy flexibility in how leave is taken (ie as days, weeks or longer periods of time). Temporary part-time work as a standard option for mothers and fathers during paternal leave is an interesting way to challenge preconceived notions of what can or cannot be achieved on a reduced-hours basis.
  • Greater flexibility should be a possibility for all workers, to reduce the chances of parents paying a penalty for exercising their right to flexibility.
  • Mothers or fathers who have requested to work reduced hours should have the option to request to return to full-time hours when they are ready.

Paid leave is generally wise from an economical standpoint. It promotes gender equality, reduce public health costs and stops families from needing to resort to public assistance. Companies are also spared the cost (as much as 200% of a worker’s salary) involved in hiring a replacement for a lost worker. Paid leave and a respect for both maternal and paternal rights also reflect the inexorable truth that affects all businesses: every single employee is a potential parent. Women contribute around 47% of total family earnings in the US. How is it that such an important part of their lives, their maternity, is still treated as something that should just be ignored?

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