At home with dad

England encourages more men to take paternity leave.

Published April 2, 2009 5:29PM (EDT)

While new mothers in the United States are lucky if they can swing three months unpaid maternity leave, British women -- when they aren't wondering where Michelle Obama stashes her handbag -- are worried they might have too much leave, relative to their children's fathers. Women in the U.K. will soon be eligible to take up to 12 months maternity leave, up from six, then nine months. What's the problem? According to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, the policy has "entrenched the assumption that women do the caring and pay the career penalty." The report goes on: "Together long, low-paid maternity leave and short, low-paid paternity leave convey the message that it is primarily women who are responsible for the care of young children."

This generation of British parents don't necessarily put much stock into traditional gender roles, according to research by the commission, but, as in the United States, there is still a gender-based pay gap -- which "more than trebles when women reach their 30s as a result of the career compromises which come with motherhood." And some employers have used the generous maternity leave policies as an excuse to express open hostility towards hiring any woman of child-bearing age.  "If someone comes into an interview and you think to yourself 'there is a possibility that this woman might have a child and therefore take time off' it is a bit of a psychological negative thought," says Sir Alan Sugar, who made a big deal over his opposition to maternity leave last year.

So it follows that making it easier for both men and women to stay in their jobs while splitting child-care duties would help out everyone. Under the new proposal, parents would keep their current amount of leave time -- 26 weeks post-partum for women, two weeks for men -- but both would be compensated at 90 percent of their salary. After the first six months, things get interesting. Families would receive three four-month "blocks" of parental leave, to be taken any time before a child's fifth birthday, paid at 90 percent salary for the first eight weeks; one block would be reserved for the mother, the other for the father, and a third could be taken by either one.

The catch? Parents can't take those additional blocks together. "To encourage more fathers to take responsibility for caring for children we are keen that some part of the leave entitlement for fathers is taken alone, without the mother on leave," the report says.

Yes, the idea of any paid parental leave at all sounds like crazy talk in this particular country in this particular year. But it’s the kind of thing just about every other country takes for granted: The United States is only one of five countries that doesn’t offer paid parental leave of some sort, a distinction we share with Australia, Liberia, Swaziland and Papua, New Guinea.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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