Paternity Leave Pt. III: The Cherry on Top

Sarina Bastrup is a second year History and International Relations student with an interest in literature, equality of all forms, human rights and beer drinking in London pubs. Preferably combined through good conversation with good people.

This article is part 3 in a series of 3 written to highlight the many positive outcomes of introducing non-transferable paternity leave on equal terms with maternity leave.

[Featured image: The top of a pink milkshake in a glass with whipped cream, funfetti and a red cherry on top.]

Researching for these pieces, was a real eye opener for me. Going in I had the strongest of biases, which I wasn’t even aware of. I started my research having almost written my conclusion: parental leave laws cause discrimination against women in the workplace. While I was indeed very right in this assumption, as outlined in part I of this series, I was missing the bigger picture. Men too, face severe inequality due to old fashioned social norms concerning parenting, causing them to be considered a secondary parent or caretaker. Yet, my research wasn’t all tragic and disappointing. Especially when it came to parental leave laws for non-traditional family arrangements, was I pleased. As it turns out, adoptive parents or parents using surrogacy, are subject to the same terms of parental leave that parents of a traditional pregnancy are: the time span, the pay, the time off for antenatal appointments, the protections of rights while on leave, etc. Each method of commenced parenthood, traditional and non-traditional, are subject to the exact same rules when it comes to parental leave. YAY! This, however, also means that they are subject to the same kind of discrimination. 

In the second part of this series I argued that men often face discrimination in their attempt to be parents on equal terms with the mother of their child. This same discrimination is very much mirrored in the process of adoption, where the future parents need to decide who should be the MAIN and who should be the SECONDARY adopter. Hence, which gets to be the important parent, and which gets to be the sideline parent. The main parent then gets same rights as a woman on maternity leave, here called adoption leave, while the secondary parent gets paternity leave: “when you and your partner (including same sex partners and civil partners) adopt a child you can decide which one will take adoption leave and which one will take paternity leave”.1 Isn’t it fitting? Here the discrimination isn’t even masked. It is blatantly stated that the secondary adopter, aka. secondary parent takes paternity leave. Thus, directly linking paternity leave, and those who take it, to being less of a parent. 

Seeing as paternity leave for traditional families is automatically linked to the father, this also means that the man, simply due to his gender, will be automatically labelled as less of a parent. Therefore, although the terminology of a main and secondary adopter in itself is wrong on so many levels, it does give the laws on parental leave just a tad more equality than what traditional family arrangements get. For when deciding upon who is the main and secondary adopter, at least biology does not play a role. There is no gender assigned criteria for receiving either status. While the majority of parental leave for traditional families automatically goes to the mother, at least, in an adoption, the family has some say in which arrangements is the best one for them, regardless of gender. In fact, this may be the only place in which parental leave laws are gender blind. Again, YAY! 

Yet, upon further consideration, this type of gender-blind parental leave laws, does start to feel a little like peeing your pants to keep yourself warm. The warmth of equality if brief and nice, until the wind of reality hits, and the cold sets in even harder. For if we can make the distribution of parental leave for adoption gender blind, why can´t we do it with parental leave for traditional commencement of parenthood? Here I feel I must point out that, yes, I did do basic biology in school and, yes, I am aware that it is the woman who does the actual carrying and birthing of the child, and that a pregnancy and subsequent birth does take a large toll on a woman’s body, and that time to heal and recover is essential. However, I am not saying that we shouldn’t give women maternity leave to recover, just that, in the spirit of equality for both women and men, paternity leave should be offered on the same terms. After all, equal doesn’t mean identical. It simply means that the differences between us shouldn’t bee the root of discrimination. Hence, that women’s ability to birth children shouldn’t be the cause of discrimination in their professional lives, just like men’s inability to birth children shouldn’t be the cause of discrimination in the private lives. Knowing the basics of reproductive biology, I was also ultimately pleased to learn about the laws concerning parental leave in cases of the use of surrogacy: “pregnant employees have the right to 52 weeks maternity leave, and to return to their job after maternity leave. Whatever the birth mother does with the child in a surrogacy arrangement following the birth it has no impact on her right to maternity leave”.2 Furthermore, while the surrogate gets up to 52 weeks to recover from the pregnancy and birth, the main adopter, or (in private arrangements) intended mother, also gets the up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, while the intended father or secondary adopter is still only entitled to 1 or 2 weeks of paternity leave.3  This means that in the case of surrogacy, the UK legally provides two full rounds of maternity leave. Yet, in any other instance of commenced parenthood providing two rounds of parental leave on equal terms is unthinkable. 

Outlined in this article series are the many, many reasons for why paternity leave is necessary in order to create equality – both professionally and socially. Yet, the concept of legally instituted equal parental leave seemed unrealistic. Then, come to find, such an implementation is already in place. All it requires is for the involved parties to take two rounds of maternity leave rather than one round of maternity and one round of paternity leave. Isn’t that just the cherry on top of this inequality sundae? This, once again, speaks to the inherent inequality that men, partners and secondary adopters experience in the process of commencing parenthood. For as maternity leave is a non-transferable leave of absence for mothers, women and main adopters after commenced parenthood, the fact that we are willing to offer two sets of it for one child, but never an equal set of, the masculine opposite, paternity leave, feeds the old-fashioned gender stereotypes more heavily than any other argument in this article. The inherently feminine parental leave is valued in a way that the masculine never will be, because at the very core of our society, children are a woman’s domain. That is why we are willing to go double up on maternity leave, but barely even consider equal paternity leave. 

Because the idea of men as breadwinners and women are caretakers are still rooted so deeply in our society, I must also turn my critique to the UK initiative of Shared Parental Leave. Here the women wages her right to parts of her maternity leave in order to share it with her partner or husband, thus leaving an option for men, partners or secondary adopters to take more than the two weeks of paternity leave they are otherwise entitled to.4 A seemingly noble and satisfactory solution to the issue. Yet, it is a naïve and inefficient solution. Changes to the idea of breadwinners vs. caretakers will not happen automatically. If it would, it wouldn’t be only 2% of families who use the option of Shared Parental Leave.5 Paternity leave needs to be equal to maternity leave in legal terms. Any other option will be nothing short of a halfhearted attempt to create equality. And, as already shown in this piece, having two rounds of equal leave isn’t unrealistic. Its already in place for surrogacy. In Spain, both parents get 16 weeks of well-paid maternity leave.6 In Finland newborn parents get 9 weeks of well-paid leave each.7 Furthermore, both Spain and Portugal have eradicated the terms “maternity” and “paternity” and made their laws on the non-gendered “parental leave” instead.8 It is doable. Gender-blind parental leave laws aren’t unachievable. I’m not asking for a unicorn. I´m asking for equality. 

Yet, so many other countries, including the UK are still so discriminatory in their laws. In fact, in the EU as a whole, only 4 countries have more than the recommended two weeks of paternity leave available in a manner that would be defined as “well paid”.9 Meanwhile, 7 countries have less than the two weeks of well-paid paternity leave available, and the UK is one of only 3 countries where absolutely no forms of well-paid paternity leave are available.10 Just let that last bit ring. The UK is one of ONLY 3 countries in which we have ABSOLUTELY NO FORMS of wells paid paternity leave available. Yet, Spain and Finland can do it. Sweden and Portugal can do it. The 25 other EU countries have some kind of wall paid paternity leave available. Granted this is often less than or just about two weeks, however, it is paternity leave nonetheless. The UK. Nothing. However, when it comes to maternity leave, we are willing to offer two rounds of it?

As I hope I managed to portray in this article series, the need for paternity leave to be introduced on equal terms with maternity leave is urgent. Doing so would remove the discrimination associated with parental leave in all its forms. For women, it means equality in the workplace, for men it means equality in the personal life, for couples – conventional as well as non-conventional – it means equality as partners in parenthood. It allows for the breaking down of the gender norms and expectations we hold so fundamentally dear in our society. It would help bring down that last wall of gender-based discrimination in so many of these areas. Women shouldn’t be passed over for promotions because they may, possibly at one point want to have children. Men shouldn’t have worse bonds with their children because their boss doesn’t respect them changing diapers for a couple of months. Parents shouldn’t be unequal partners in parenthood, simply due to their gender. Take the cherry on top of the inequality sundae that is parental leave laws and change it. Don’t let the catch be that we actually do support two rounds of maternity leave, but never equal paternity leave. Let the last little perk be that our parental leave laws are equal and gender blind. Change the sundae completely and place your new gender-blind cherry on top with pride. I know I would. 

Works Cited:

1 Maternity Action: Rights for Adoptive Parents: https://www.maternityaction.org.uk/advice-2/mums-dads-scenarios/7-adopting-or-involved-in-a-surrogacy-arrangement/adoption-leave-and-pay-rights-for-parents/ 

2 Acas: Surrogacy, rights for the intended parents: http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=5342

3 Ibid.

4 HM Government: Shared parental Leave: https://sharedparentalleave.campaign.gov.uk/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw1pblBRDSARIsACfUG12vreWca2oHZ7zE741QtTb9F2KiQCNzMpMv07-OxcpfrMuTif5QHzcaAiDmEALw_wcB

5 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-43026312

6 EU Comission report: Paternity and parental leave policies across the European Union: Assessment of current provision

7 EU Comission report: Paternity and parental leave policies across the European Union:Assessment of current provision

8 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/ATAG/2019/635586/EPRS_ATA(2019)635586_EN.pdf 

9 EU Comission report: Paternity and parental leave policies across the European Union:Assessment of current provision

10 EU Comission report: Paternity and parental leave policies across the European Union:Assessment of current provision

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