Equality holds women back? Huh?

Generous maternity benefits are making British women less attractive to employers -- and the solution is more generous paternity benefits.

Published July 14, 2008 3:10PM (EDT)

I've seen some buried leads in my time, but this Times Online article about problems with the parental leave laws in Britain -- which will soon allow mothers a full year of leave while fathers still get only two weeks -- takes the cake. From the headline, "Equality Laws 'Are Holding Women Back,'" through the first, oh, 10 paragraphs, the article seems to be about Nicola Brewer, chief executive of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, arguing that the decision to give women so much time off is regrettable because it makes them less attractive to employers. "Business leaders have criticized the new maternity laws, saying that they are a headache for employers and that it is difficult to plan the workforce if parents go part-time. But this is the first time that a criticism has come from an organization that campaigns on behalf of women." Goodness! Even the crazy feminists think this equality stuff is terrible!

Then comes what Brewer is actually arguing: "Ms Brewer said that it was not a case of taking away the new rights from mothers but of extending them to fathers. In her speech today she will ask why men should not be entitled to 12 weeks of leave on 90 per cent of their earnings following the birth of a child -- the same as women." Oh, I get it! She isn't concerned that "equality laws are holding women back," but that the laws in question are not, in fact, equal. Nowhere else in Europe is the gap between parental leave for mothers and fathers so wide.

The article raises important points about the practical downside of long maternity leave -- to wit, that the laws encourage employers to pass over women for jobs and promotions in the first place, and some women are being fired shortly after returning to work, when their bosses are legally free to lower the boom. As one of the commenters there puts it, through the eyes of an employer, "women are just too risky and too expensive." Lovely. But the problem is not that the parental leave laws just treat women too darn humanely, as much of this article seems to suggest. It's that offering women 50 more weeks of paid leave than men are allowed is patently unfair and only reinforces sexist stereotypes that have always made it impossible for men and women to participate equally in both the workplace and domestic life; that men are not capable of or interested in rearing children, and women are unreliable employees because, eventually, their ovaries will trump their brains. The real point here is that Britain needs to catch up with the rest of Europe and acknowledge that parents of both sexes care about their families -- and employers need to get over their "headaches" and accept that all workers have personal lives.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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