- Isabella Lenarduzzi

Unequal parental leave reinforces stereotypes

In October the European Parliament voted to extend maternity leave to 20 weeks on full pay (currently 15 weeks in Belgium) and two weeks paternity leave (also two weeks in Belgium but optional) on full pay. But this move has been met with mixed opinion.

The Federation of European Employers was outraged by the proposal, citing two reasons: Firstly the additional cost to the public finances – surely this is just a question of reallocating budgets. Secondly, they argue that it could lead to further discrimination in recruiting women particularly to positions of responsibility. Let’s develop this one further…

In the more gender equal Scandinavian countries for example, women have long enjoyed the rights that the European Parliament is trying to introduce for the rest of us. These countries have the highest rate of working women and the highest number of women in management positions. Working while raising children in Scandinavia is the norm so birth rates are high. So, in the Nordic countries and in France where it is accepted that women can work and raise children, the more women work, the more they have children! This is so essential for our economic growth and our personal development.

So it would seem that the fears of European employers are unfounded but they could hold some ground if, for example, the roles in family life are not equally shared …

In Belgium, families with children younger than 12 years, have the right to three months parental leave, which can be spread out. Of those taking this parental leave, 80% are women and only 20% are men (men also tend to use it for shorter periods). Also 49% of women work part time as compared to only 13% of men. This makes women more financially vulnerable particularly if their relationship does not last the test of time. But even if the relationship lasts, women of pensionable age still only receive about 57% of the amount that men receive!

Have you noticed that when we talk about balancing or managing time between family and professional lives, we are essentially addressing women? If men and women invested in sharing parental responsibilities, women would have more time to develop their own careers. More importantly, if fathers assumed a greater role in childrearing, companies would perhaps view childcare problems differently as both genders would have the same dilemma.

JUMP carried out a survey in 2009 on the follow-up of children’s education in families where both parents work. It seems that women feel more responsible for their child’s success at school and feel guilty, often taking time off work to help their children with their homework particularly during exam periods. Men do not seem to bear the weight on their shoulders as much promoting instead the importance of their child’s autonomy to explain why they don’t need to take time off work.

Another study asked men what they would need to be encouraged to take more parental leave. Their response was clear: on the one hand they want to be paid much more, not a fixed rate ( 653€ for full-time parental leave in Belgium) but a percentage of their salary. On the other hand, they also want assurance that it wouldn’t jeopardise their careers. Two arguments indicate how we need to move forward to make family politics more equal across Europe. The consequences of parenthood on our careers should be equally shared!

We can only avoid discrimination between men and women the moment that a man announces to his boss that his wife is pregnant, and the latter is gripped with fear wondering how he will be able to replace the future father who will be absent for weeks or maybe months! At the moment we bring out the Champagne when the father announces the birth and have difficulty accepting it when it comes from the mother. But it takes two to make a child, doesn’t it?

For everyone to agree with the European Parliament’s decision to extend maternity leave, parental leave should first be more equal for men and women (obviously taking into account the mothers’ natural and physical post-natal fatigue). Parental leave without any “equality trend” only tends to reinforce the stereotypes of family roles.

The next newsletter, the first one of 2011, will cover new fathers and their adjustment to their new identity, which is so important to have a happy functioning family and children who can develop their full potential.

In the meantime, I wish you much happiness for 2011 and don’t forget to spread your wings and your personality independent of what is expected of you as a women or a man!