Having children is said to be one of life’s most fulfilling experiences. But for many women, it’s also one of the worst career moves they can make. Less likely to be hired and more likely to earn less, women who choose to have children often do so at the expense of their careers. Identified as the primary caregivers by both the law and society, legislation surrounding paternity leave also frequently excludes fathers. With little to no option when it comes to deciding who gets to stay at home, many families and lobby groups are now calling for an end to outdated and misogynistic paternity leave laws. Looking towards the likes of Sweden for policy inspiration, campaigners are hoping a change in law will finally pave the way to equality in both the home and workplace.
By international standards, New Zealand’s parental leave laws are certainly not the most meagre. But they aren’t the most generous either. According to 2015 data from the international Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Family Database, out of 41 countries, New Zealand comes in at second to last in terms of generosity. The only country with less paid leave is the United States (which currently offers a total of zero paid weeks to both parents in any state outside of California).
In New Zealand, legislation allows Kiwi mothers to up to 18 weeks of paid parental leave, with the option of transferring payments to their partner. While this does give fathers and significant others the choice of staying home, for those on smaller incomes, it still means one parent is likely to have to return to work. This is because payments are made based on average weekly earnings, with the minimum payment set at $152.50 per week and the maximum at $527.72 (both before tax). What’s more, partners or fathers are only eligible for transfer payments if they are qualified for paid parental leave by their employer. The only other option for fathers to directly take leave themselves is for two unpaid weeks.
Leaving little room for parents on low incomes to take time off from work, a number of members of parliament have been campaigning for a change in legislation. In May last year, Labour MP Sue Moroney put forth a bill for the second time to increase the number of paid parental leave weeks from 18 to 26. Despite strong support for the bill, it was swiftly vetoed by then Finance Minister, Bill English. Labelling it as unaffordable, English said an increase to 26 weeks would have come at a “significant extra cost”.
While Moroney was not successful on this occasion, it seems unlikely this will be the last time the issue will be brought to parliament. With both government agencies, like the Social Policy Research and Evaluation Uni (Superu), and independent lobby groups, such as Family First, campaigning in recent years for an increase in leave for both parents, it appears many Kiwis are hoping for a change in policy. The problem, however, is reaching an agreement on how best to implement it. Although many politicians are pro-paternity leave (both Moroney and English have expressed their approval), agreeing on how to execute it is proving to be a contesting issue.
For some, the answer lies some 17,000 kilometres away in Scandinavia. Often cited as having some of the best paternity leave policies in the world, Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway are known for their generosity. In Sweden, parents can enjoy up to 480 days (almost 69 weeks off) and for 390 of those days, they can claim 80 percent of their regular pay (the remaining days are then paid at a flat rate). Both employed and unemployed parents are entitled to the support, which can reach up to 37,083 Swedish Krona a month (roughly NZ$6000). Of these days, 90 are specially reserved for fathers.
While both fathers and mothers can take the 480 days, Sweden is actively encouraging dads to spend more time with their children in a bid to boost gender equality. If, for example, the father chooses to share the leave equally with the mother, they will also receive an ‘equality bonus’ as part of new legislation. The more equally divided the days are, the higher the bonus. Conversely, fathers who fail to take the minimum days risk losing payment. “It’s a very strong tradition here,” Roger Klinth, a researcher and senior lecturer in gender studies at Linkoping University, told press in an interview last year. “That all political parties voted for it in 1974 was a clear signal from the state that men and women should have the same status as parents and that one gender shouldn’t take main responsibility.”
In spite of such generous paternity leave policies, not all fathers in Sweden have been quick to maximise their leave. According to 2014 statistics from the Swedish government, fathers took just 25 percent of the total parental leave allowance. Brendon Smith, a support worker for the Father and Child Trust, a New Zealand-based charity that provides help and advice to local dads, says gender roles play a major factor in deciding who takes leave and for how long. “We know that parental leave in New Zealand is far more likely to be taken by mothers, that job security and societal expectations of men being able to earn more, plus the maternity sector’s attitude of supporting only mothers through pregnancy, childbirth and early parenting and the maternity market targeting mainly women, all contribute to mothers thinking they are all babies need.”
Quoting research from the United States, Smith believes New Zealanders face a similar situation to overseas counterparts when it comes to fathers feeling more pressure to quickly return to the work force. “Single women now earn more on average than single men, so the only time a man earns more is in traditional couples, where they are preparing for children or have had children,” the support worker explains. “For example, mums work fewer hours or [in] less stressful jobs so they can be at home or more available to the children.”
Consequently, research both here and abroad seems to confirm traditional gender roles are keeping many new mothers away from advancing in their careers, while also keeping fathers tied to their desks. A 2009 report by the Families Commission (now known as Superu) found that almost half of 1721 fathers who participated were unable to take leave at all, while another international survey indicates that even when offered the opportunity, many men are hesitant to take it. In an online poll by professional services firm Deloitte’s Women Initiative, less than half of the 1000 American participants surveyed with access to benefits thought their employer fostered an environment where men felt comfortable taking leave. The findings also show that like women, men too fear their careers will also suffer if they take time off, with a third believing spending time at home with their newborn would “jeopardise their position”.
Indeed, their fears may not be unfounded. Historically, women who have taken time off have been penalised for the very same reasons specified by these men – taking leave jeopardises their roles, strips them of opportunities and puts them at a disadvantage compared with their childless co-workers. Moreover, according to the OECD, many countries with liberal parental leave policies also have larger pay gaps, due to women tending to take more time off than men. Because of this, it is thought that if men then behave like women, they too will suffer the same discrimination.
Ironically, some research seems to confirm men can actually benefit in the workplace after having a child. In a paper written by Michelle Budig, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, she details how high-income men receive the largest pay rises for having children, while women on low incomes pay the largest price. Budig, who has studied the parenting pay gap for 15 years, says this is because of the way mothers are perceived in the work place. “Employers read fathers as more stable and committed to their work; they have a family to provide for, so they’re less likely to be flaky,” explains Budig in an interview from 2014. “That is the opposite of how parenthood by women is interpreted by employers. The conventional story is they work less and they’re more distractible when on the job.”
On average, men’s earnings were found to increase by more than 6 percent when they had children they lived with, while women’s decreased by 4 percent for every child had.
Budig’s findings, which were published in a 2014 paper from research group Third Way, show that even when disparities like experience, education, hours and spousal incomes were accounted for, the gap still persisted. The study, which tracked people’s labour market activities over an almost 30-year period, alarmingly suggests the discrimination is largely due to gender stereotypes.
More locally, University of Canterbury associate professor Annick Masselot has been doing her own research on the subject. She also thinks parenting plays a significant role in the discrimination women face in the work place. “Women are not merely discriminated against because they are pregnant and are about to take a period of parental leave, they are discriminated on the basis of the next 15 years of school holidays,’’ Masselot said in an interview with Stuff from 2013. “It is parenting which is at the heart of the discrimination and it is mostly women who suffer from it because it is women who perform the vast majority of the domestic care.”
Pregnant women, women with young children and those of child-bearing age who were in “danger of becoming pregnant” were less likely than their non-pregnant counterparts to be considered for a job, according to Masselot. The researcher also adds that maternity rights can potentially create a ‘barrier’ in women’s employability. For new mothers, this is bad news. With recent statistics from the 2013 Statistics New Zealand’s Household Labour Force Survey showing more than 40 percent of mums are back at work or looking for work less than a year after childbirth, the number of working mums is on the rise. Not-for-profit organisations, like the Mother’s Network in Wellington, say some of the major issues they see are related to the social and financial pressures to return to work.
But, fortunately, not all mothers’ experiences returning to work are bad. Deirdre Robert, an Auckland-based communications professional and new mother, believes New Zealand’s maternity leave policies are “not amazing but not terrible”. Following the birth of her first son Felix in 2015, Robert was able to take one year off work, after which she was able to return to her regular position.
“I’m fortunate that my workplace has a flexible maternity leave policy,” Robert says. “But I have some friends who feel nervous about taking maternity leave and what it might mean for their job security. I never felt like that.”
Like many fathers, however, Robert’s partner was back to work after one week. “While it’s getting better, I’d say there is definitely still a stereotype of the woman being the caregiver. It’s definitely moved a long way though. I also think it depends on who you work for,” explains Robert, who believes men can face similar pressures to return to work, depending on who they work for. “While you may legally be entitled to take the time off, you might worry about what happens when you return. Do they still want you? Has someone else stepped up and made you superfluous? Is it going to limit your career? Is your requesting leave perceived as a lack of commitment to your job and the company? Women on maternity leave face the same questions.”
A firm believer in paternity leave for both parents, Robert is hopeful the government will increase time off for both parents. But she’s also mindful of the costs. “More paid time off is always going to be helpful, but I’m mindful of the cost and where that money needs to come from. There’s no easy fix. Paid paternity leave for fathers would be a great step forward,” she says. “A lot of those Scandinavian countries are excellent in many respects when it comes to looking after their own – from maternity leave, to doctors and dental care – they’ve got it covered! But their taxes also help fund that.”
Money, it seems, continues to be a major factor in the decision-making process of paternity leave policies – not just in regards to policy makers, but also employers. As Masselot’s research suggests, for many employers, (particularly small businesses), it is the financial burden of paternity leave that discourages them from hiring new or expecting mothers. While, like Robert, Smith supports the concept of paternity leave, he is also wary about costs. “I know lots of small businesses who will not hire young women as they can’t handle the idea that she is there one year then gone for six months but they have to keep the job open for them,” Smith says. “I think New Zealand needs to lock in four weeks of paternity leave and keep maternity leave around six months. We do not have the large corporations or government departments that can cope with lots of staff leaving and being paid.”
Conversely, if a lack of uptake from Swedish fathers is anything to go by, a simple change in policy is unlikely to resolve overnight those issues surrounding gender roles in the workplace. While policies can pave the way for change, little is achieved if fathers are reluctant to take their entitled leave. As Deepa Purushothaman, the head of Deloitte’s Women Initiative, suggests, a shift in societal view is also needed if society is to succeed in closing the gender gap. “What I’d like to see is that we encourage both our men and women to take [their full entitlement], where it is OK for both genders to take generous parental leave,” Purushothaman says. “It’s something as a culture we need to stress and make easier to do.”
This article was feature in the March/April 2017 issue of M2woman Magazine