How do we get greater equality for women in the workplace? Simple. Give men paternity leave.
The wealth gap between women and men is not as simple as different pay scales (though I’m old enough to remember the ad in the Irish Times: Equality Officer wanted. Pay, £14k for men, £10k for women). Now, everyone gets equal pay for the same job.
Sure, there are a few sneaky tricks employers can pull if they want applicants of a specific gender. Increasing the pay offered tends to attract more men, lowering it tends to attract women. Let’s not go into what that says about the state of the female psyche.
However, in general, a man and a woman of the same age starting employment together will be paid similar amounts. They’ll probably be promoted at similar rates as well.
The problem comes when they get together and she gets pregnant. Then her employment pattern moves from fast track to the mommy shelf. Everyone knows she’ll be taking time off for ante-natal classes, and will be out for six months of maternity leave, and when (if!) she comes back, she’ll be taking days off to look after a sick sprong and will refuse to work overtime because she has to pick it up from child care.
Worse, having done it once, she may well decided to do it again. That’s a second lot of maternity leave and having to get a temp in to cover her while she’s out. By now, she’s missed out on three promotion opportunities and is getting pretty pissed off with her workplace.
Olivia O’Leary, award-winning journalist and anchor of Irish news, told the 2015 “Women in Meda” conference that her loneliest day as a journalist was the day she had a child. “We still live in a world where women are left to bear that weight alone,” she said.
Having children is necessary for the public good. Ireland is the only country in Europe where the birth rate still exceeds the death rate, and only just.
Other countries are frantically bribing families to have more children, or they will face the day when the sheer weight of the elderly population brings the economy crashing down.
But at the moment, women are being penalised for having children. Not only is it demanding, it is expensive (the current estimate is that a couple have to earn €30,000 before tax to afford a good crèche), exhausting (remember that time when you slept all night? Me neither) and carries a huge penalty in the workplace.
Once there is any suggestion that a female employee may consider having children, she’s off the promotion ladder. Employers say there is no point investing time and training in someone who will disappear for six months. When she does come back to work, she won’t do overtime, as the crèche closes at 6pm sharp.
All those missed months and lack of promotion have a cumulative effect on women’s pay. The man and the woman who started work together find that twenty years later, he’s several promotions above her and his pension is a lot healthier looking than hers.
There is a very simple solution to this.
Give men equal paternity leave.
If men and women were equally likely to take six months off work when a baby was born, there would be no advantage in employing men, and no reason to not to promote women. It’s not like they are going to be off work longer than the men. And their pension funds will fill up at the same rate.
The present system put the entire burden of reproduction on women. As Olivia O’Leary says, “It victimises a woman if she is the only one carrying all the weight. It makes her weaker, it makes her vulnerable and she will be treated differently.”
The answer is not more laws trying to protect women and their right to reproduce, it’s to give the same rights to men, so that both parents are playing on a level field.
There could be a few extra benefits. Those men who are busy denying paternity after a one night stand or short affair might be a bit quicker to admit it’s their baby if they get six months off work. And employers might rethink the double standard. “He looks like the sort of guy who knocks up a lot of women and will constantly be off on paternity leave.” After all, there is a limit to how often a woman can go out on maternity leave, no limit to many times a man can claim paternity leave.