UK Grants Dads Greater Paternity Leave

It’s a small step – a very small step – but a step nonetheless.

As of last Sunday, British dads are now legally entitled to ask for paternity leave to be with their newborns.  Up to now, mothers got up to nine months of paid maternity leave; dads got two weeks unpaid.  On Sunday that changed – somewhat.  Read about it here (Telegraph, 4/4/11).

Now, after Mom has taken four months of leave to be with Baby, Dad can ask his employer for paid paternity leave that would last up until the child is nine months old.  After that, all leave  for Mom or Dad is unpaid.

Now, while that’s a more equitable arrangement than what’s obtained to date, it’s still far from equal.  In the first place, mothers and fathers can’t just decide for themselves how and whether to divide up parental leave.  (Why not?  I can’t guess.)  For four months, Dad has no right to take time off to be with his newborn.

And even then, his rights seem less than Mom’s.  You’ll notice that I previously said that he can ask for leave, and that’s correct.  He can ask.  And his employer can refuse.  Presumably there are certain reasons for denial that are legally acceptable under the new law.  My guess is that employers who don’t like the law will become adept at phrasing their refusals in legally appropriate ways.

Then there’s the problem of the ‘paid’ part of ‘paid leave.’  Leave will be paid at a maximum of £128.73 per week regardless of the parent’s sex.  Since women in the U.K., like those in the U.S. tend to work less and earn less than do men, the penalty fathers and their families will pay for his taking leave will be greater than that paid by mothers and their families when she does.  So the structure of payment militates more against dads than moms.

Still, on Sunday fathers in fact acquired greater parental rights than they had on Saturday.  Something, even if it’s just a little something, is better than nothing.

Good so far.  My prediction though is that the new parental leave will barely affect parental behavior, if at all.  That’s because, whatever the grand notions of activists and legislators, when it comes to parenting, men’s and women’s behaviors don’t tend to change much.

As American sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and British economist Catherine Hakim point out time and again, the reality of parenting roles proves remarkably resistant to change. 

Remember the amazing revolutionary Stay-at-Home-Dad, the dad who opts out of work to care for children?  He’s close to non-existent.  As of 2008 in the U.S., there were about 140,000 SAHDs in the U.S., compared to about 5,327,000 mothers.  Similar ratios obtain in the U.K.

Or how about Wilcox’s revelation that, according to sociological data, a grand total of 20% of mothers with children under the age of 18 want to work full-time.  In about 75% of all American families with minor children, the father is the main breadwinner.

The simple fact is that, whatever those who inhabit the brave new world of gender equality choose to believe, the vast majority of people behave differently.  They still see women with children primarily as mothers and men as breadwinners. 

So it’s nice of the British Parliament to open up parental leave to fathers.  I’d never argue with a law that expands paternal rights in the direction of equality with mothers’ rights.  But let’s not pretend that much will change because of it.  As the article says,

But surveys suggest that despite these more flexible working rules, few men will request this time off because they are worried about their job security in the current economic climate.

That’s easy to understand.  When you’re the chief earner in your family and you think of yourself as primarily that and your wife agrees, you’re unlikely to risk your job in an unhealthy economy for the privilege of taking a huge cut in pay.  No, you’ll see the little tyke when you get home from work and let it go at that.

By itself, that’s not a huge problem, but here’s a bigger one.  I’ll wager the following:  some time in the not-too-distant future there will be a study of the effects of the new parental leave law; that study will reveal essentially what I’ve outline above, i.e. that dads are not availing themselves of their new rights to a very great degree; and as sure as the sunrise, someone (probably several ‘someones’) will use the information as “proof” that fathers don’t want to be with their children, don’t care about them, etc.

In short, a minor advance in fathers’ rights will be used to obstruct them.

See if that doesn’t happen.  I’ve got a fiver that says it does.

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