Helen Martin: Primitive bosses cry wolf over baby leave
STORMS in teacups are part and parcel of politics. Whatever one party suggests is automatically going to be rubbished by another.
And when employees’ rights are on the agenda, the business lobby piles in with dire warnings about how any improvement to conditions is going to threaten economic recovery and bring the country to its knees.
The current outcry over the plan to let men and women share new-parent leave, announced in last week’s Queen’s Speech, has all that. But added to the mix is another voice many of us thought was long gone, or at least would be too ashamed to speak up.
From under ancient rocks, chauvinists whom we all thought were extinct, have emerged from some deep pool untouched by evolution.
Apparently while giving mothers up to 12 months maternity leave is OK and has been working reasonably well, allowing mothers and fathers to share seven months of that as best suits them and their family’s income and situation is going to be a bureaucratic disaster and force small firms out of business; a veritable spoke in the wheel of growth.
Such over-reaction and hysteria! The plan merely presents an option for parents of newborns. Extended paternity leave will not be compulsory . . . just as maternity leave is not compulsory now.
Realistically, the chances are few men will go for it anyway, probably being quite content with being let off the hook when it comes to the hard work attached to looking after a house and baby, and preferring the easier option of staying in their comfort zone and going to work as usual. Perhaps some will even be man enough to admit they wouldn’t know where to start, let alone how to go on managing at home alone (except for the infant) for months.
There are a lot of mums who don’t want to leave their baby in the first year and who actually love the role of primary carer and nurturer, just as there are mums who forego maternity leave altogether. Perhaps some enlightened souls will embrace the concept of enhanced father-baby bonding, but how many men will put their hands up for this opportunity, is anyone’s guess,
The really disappointing thing about the furore is that there appears to be an assumption among the anti lobby that losing a man for seven or eight months has a much more devastating effect on a business than losing a woman for a year. Now that, I find offensive.
The world has changed since the days when the majority of women asked their profession would answer “housewife” or, if they were American and affected, say “home-maker”.
There are many couples in which the woman is the main bread-winner and the one with a career that could be derailed by a year’s absence. They are far more likely to take advantage of the new arrangements which allow the man to stay home, than a couple in a more “traditional” set up where the higher-flying husband provides for the family.
And there are those who really do have a 50:50 partnership; where they have equally matched jobs requiring equal commitment and paying equal salaries. Why should she be told she has to park her career for a year and put advancement at risk because she’s the only one entitled to a year of parental leave while he’s only permitted a miserable two weeks?
The fact is we are in a recession, every penny counts and people – whatever business leaders and those opposed to the new policy may think – are not idiots.
The person with most career prospects to lose and therefore probably of most value to their employer, is likely to get back to work as soon as possible. The other, for the sake of the family finances and offering their new child as much security as possible, is likely to accept the home role – if they can afford to and if they believe it best for the baby. Gender simply doesn’t come into it.
And for a vast number of couples, the idea of either of them taking significant time off will be terrifying in view of redundancy and paranoia stalking the land. There’s a feeling that if an employer can do without you for a few months, they can probably do without you for ever.
Let’s not forget, there are single mums who also have careers for whom maternity leave doesn’t even figure in their dreams.
It’s alarming that any business lobby or opposition politician can be so out of touch that they believe men are worth more than women; that any employee takes several months’ absence from work lightly; or that employees don’t understand the effect such absence will have on the business.
Attitudes like theirs will do much more to slow down economic growth and recovery than offering couples a choice over who, if either, is left holding the baby.
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