14 November 2012

Parental leave policy lag

So, Nick Clegg announced today plans to radically overhaul parental leave. It's a good policy, the only question is how we've managed to talk for so long about equality and gender balance without doing something like it. Policy in this case, is lagging seriously behind our expectations from society.

Growing out of the eighties our society has developed two particularly strong and interlinked threads within the whole equality agenda. The first of these is that men and women should have, and play, an equal role in the work place, and the second is that it is not just a woman's role to bring up children. Of course these ideas were around since well before the nineties, but it felt like, going in to the nineties we really did for the first time, as a majority, believe it was right and that we had made considerable progress towards it.

Yet we currently have a parental leave policy that does not support this view of society, we have made some headway in allowing men to take a portion of maternity leave, but it is inflexible and rigid, and doesn't really promote the idea that a family should be given a free choice in how they decide to provide and look after their children. It places one person in the main role of raising a child and one in the role of earning money... and quite often, due to practicalities more than anything, this tends to push towards women staying at home.

Having the opportunity to work together as a family in those first months must be of benefit in creating stronger family bonds and help reduce the strain of parents feeling they have been pushed down a certain path. The additional flexibility plays a crucial role in allowing a couple, embarking on the most important and life changing event of their relationship, to discover and create a solution that works best for them and allows them to create the strongest and most  stable family they can.

I am not going to argue for or against men staying at home to raise children in place of women, the arguments are far too wide ranging and far too variable from case to case. It is clear however that, certainly amongst younger couples, there is a much greater variety in how a couples income is spread between each partner, and their career aspirations is likely to be a much broader mix too. In the end it should be about choice. There are of course all sorts of biologically based arguments that are made, but each couple should be free to weigh these arguments themselves, along with their own circumstances and not have the decision of how to share the care and financial responsibility towards their children be biased towards one gender.

Most importantly though the proposal, in my view, closes down one specific imbalance: it puts men and women on an equal footing at work when it comes to children and families. One of the responses to this idea when it was previously floated by the government was from business owners who wanted to know how they would deal with the uncertainty of their staff taking prolonged periods of parental leave, especially those in senior positions? The failure to acknowledge that this 'concern' already applies to female employees is a damning admission that they do not view men and women in the same way. The answer to their concern should have been... "well, you deal with it in the same way you do for female employees, how is it any different?" Of course I rather suspect the way these people deal with it now is to take the view that men are less risky to employ or promote to positions of responsibility.

I've never really had an issue with employers asking the question of whether someone was thinking of having a family, something that is usually viewed as a discriminatory question. I think it can suggest a responsible attitude towards staff and potential staff and how to grow their career and the business together. However when the consequences of answering are more detrimental to a woman's chances, the question becomes dangerous, a tool that could be used to discriminate; and those who do not wish to discriminate (or be seen to) lose an opportunity for them to better understand and support their staff and plan for the future of their business.