- Caroline Thorpe is a British journalist based in London. She was deputy editor of multiple award-winning Inside Housing magazine until 2011, when she took a year out to pursue graduate studies in gender at the London School of Economics. She has now returned to full-time journalism, specialising in social policy and politics. In this post she discusses parental leave in the UK, arguing that statutes alone will not necessarily lead to gender-neutral approaches to care. Follow her on Twitter @mrsparanandi.
Last week I received an out of office email from a successful Swedish banker. Its contents were shocking. ‘I am on paternity leave until July 2013’, it read.
A man taking the next nine months off work following the birth of his child? And who knows how long he’d already spent on parenting duty before my innocently-sent email triggered his outlandish response! In London, where I live, few women I know take that long ‘off’ (a euphemism if ever there was one) when their child is born. Men simply don’t have the option beyond a paltry two-week statutory offering.
Which brings me to another shock. Two days earlier I had met up with a friend who, expecting her first child later this month, is on maternity leave from her job as a hospital doctor. Her husband also works for a bank, in London. When it comes to paternity leave for him – here it comes – he frets that he may struggle to take two days, let alone the two weeks allowed under UK law.
The UK government wants to make it easier for parenting to be shared more equally between the genders or, in the case of same-sex couples, both partners. It plans to scrap existing maternity and paternity leave in 2015, replacing them with a new ‘parental leave’, a policy much-championed by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. While women would still be entitled to 18 weeks maternity leave, ministers propose making the remaining 34 weeks of a mother’s current allowance available to both parents, who could share it as they wished. And while the level of state financial support would not change, its labeling would, ‘parental pay’ replacing ‘maternity’ and ‘paternity’ benefits.
This is all good stuff if you’re keen on ungendering the business of bringing up children, both in terms of dismantling key structural barriers to gender equality as well as addressing the power of language to set the tone that helps construct and then reinforces those barriers in the first place. (Sweden’s 1995 Parental Leave Act contains not a single ‘mother’ or ‘father’.)
And yet here comes the But: all this is far from a done deal. Firstly, the plans face significant opposition from the business lobby. The British Chamber of Commerce reckons the proposals will attract ‘endless’ legal challenges, while the Institute of Directors has warned that ‘putting heavier burdens on business in these tough times wouldn’t be a sensible move’ (the implication being that it’s okay to let them fall on parents, especially mothers, instead). Moreover the government itself admits the new system may prove too costly to implement by 2015, and who knows what opposition will rear its head once the legislation begins its passage through parliament in the new year.