U.K.: Parental Leave and Gender Equality

April 10, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Here’s a good article on parental leave policies and how they may be out of step with the desires of workers (Financial Times, 4/6/19).  Parental leave policy seems to be very much a front-burner issue in the U.K. these days.

The article’s points are straightforward: fathers generally want to spend more time with their kids, when they do, mothers are freed to do more paid work and the earnings differential between men and women narrows.  I’ve said the same many times over the years.  Data out of Sweden for example, a country with equal parental leave for men and women, suggest that the author may have a point.  There the workforce participation rate for women was 70% in 2017 compared to the U.S. in which it was 57%.  And the earnings differential between men and women in Sweden was 12.5% versus 15% in the U.S.

Still, the FT piece is too facile by half.  The idea that the only thing standing between men and childcare, and women and the coveted cubicle is parental leave policy is dubious at best.  The writer, Pilita Clark, actually admits as much, although I’m not sure she realizes it.

The discrepancy [in earnings] takes off after women give birth and continues to rise so that by the time a child is 12 years old, the gap is around 33 per cent.

How does Clark figure that parental leave that never covers more than a year off work, could still be affecting the choices women make when a child is 12 years old?  She doesn’t say for the good and sufficient reason that it has no such impact.

So the differences between men’s and women’s involvement in paid work and childcare are considerably more complex than parental leave policies indicate.  Now, we all want equality between the sexes and parental leave is a significant part of that.

The British government pays 26 times more to a mother on the average wage in the first year after a birth than a father, according to family researcher Duncan Fisher, one of a growing number of men calling for the scales to be balanced.

So yes, companies and governments should equalize their policies.  Fathers and mothers should get the same amounts of time off at the same pay rates.  That done, the parents can decide for themselves what they want to do with their leave.

But Clark’s omissions extend further.  She inveighs against governments giving mothers more time with the kids but never considers the possibility that that’s what mothers want.  After all, motherhood is as powerful a biological urge as there is among humans.  The hormones that connect adults to children and vice versa have a way of being obeyed.  Countless studies and sets of data demonstrate that, given the choice between staying at home with baby and returning to the gray cubicle, mothers tend strongly to opt for the former.  They do so overwhelmingly because oxytocin, beta endorphin and the like encourage them to be with and nurture their children.  They’ve been doing that for untold millennia and aren’t about to change now.  Unsurprisingly, data assembled by researchers like Dr. Catherine Hakim show most women’s preference for childcare over paid work.  They also show men’s preference for the converse, men being the resource providers that they’ve always been.

So basic biology tends to militate against the idea that men and women are interchangeable parts in the scheme of human survival.  We aren’t and never have been.  Indeed, Dr. Anna Machin stresses the fact that evolution abhors replication, i.e. too much overlap in roles.

Perhaps more important though is the role played by family courts in keeping men out of the nursery.  By now, many men have become aware of the rather extreme anti-male/pro-female bias of family courts.  In the U.K., a father’s chance of getting meaningful parenting time with his child post-divorce is somewhere between slim and none.  Even researchers like Maeb Harding who want to convince us that family courts are evenhanded end up showing that it takes a seriously dysfunctional mother for a dad to get custody of a child.

So why would a man devote himself overmuch to his child knowing that it could be taken away at any minute by a so-inclined ex and a compliant judge?  Family court reform is one of the keys to equality between the sexes.  Without it, parental leave will accomplish little.

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