“Business” is no excuse for prejudice

by Ray Filar

Quite strangely for a practice upon which the existence of the human race depends, having babies is still a career disadvantage to women in a way that it is not to men. In stone age fashion, parental leave legislation continues to envisage women as primary child-carers and men as primary breadwinners. Those heterosexual parents who would like to create a work/life balance mash-up of the two stereotypical roles don’t get a look in.

Statutory maternity leave currently stands at fifty-two weeks, maximum. Statutory paternity leave, by contrast, amounts to two weeks at the beginning, and from this April, at most twenty-six weeks in the second half of the baby’s first year. These laws continue to dictate that the stay-at-home-with-the-baby be mostly done by the parent with a vulva.

This is clearly unfair to all genders. Women may always be the birth-givers, but frankly, once the actual birth and two-week recovery period is over, a new task begins. This task is called child care, and there is no reason for it not to be shared between parents in a way that suits them. Commitment to legislative gender equality leads me to believe that it should be shared relatively equally, but at the very least, parents should be able to decide, not governments or businesses.

I grew up in a family in which my mum worked longer hours than my dad, and at times earned more. My dad was able to combine his career with picking up my siblings from school and cooking dinner. He’s a pretty good cook, actually. I don’t know how he does it, but having a male body doesn’t seem to render him incapable of child-care. Indeed, based on my experience of being cared for by a father as well as a mother, I’d go so far as to contend that wiping poo out of a baby’s arse is much the same task whatever your gender.

Luckily, Vince Cable appears to be stepping into the breech (bad pun intended) with a recently launched consultation on parental leave. His most operative suggestion is that an extra month be added to possible paternity leave, enabling parents to divide the thirty weeks after the first eighteen (which would still be retained for the mother) between them.

The benefits of this consultation are obvious, but the business-powers-that-be reacted with predictable howls of outrage. “How dare Cable propose a small increase to gender equality for those that want it at the expense of my previously unhindered profiteering” screamed the chambers of commerce.

Other business leaders made the same old predictable excuses. The new regulations are complex and burdensome to employers. It will mean more red tape. This time of economic uncertainty, is not the time to recognise pesky little annoyances like civil rights. You can have your slightly more equal rights when my profits are more assured. And so on.

Even prior to the announcement of the new consultation, complaints often made by small businesses and those humans who don’t plan to have children suggest that covering for parents on maternity and paternity leave can be difficult, time-consuming, and costly. Perhaps letting parents take more time off, more equally spread, will just hurt businesses that little bit too much?

Accepting that covering for parents might sometimes be tricky, and that new regulations might add complexity, this is still no real counterargument to Cable’s proposals. It would be easier to take the ‘it hurts our businesses’ objection more seriously if it had not been made every time a proposed civil rights advance takes place.

When women’s campaign to be allowed to work alongside men in traditionally male occupations took off, the “it will hurt business” objection was made. So far, women’s entry into the world of recognised work has not directly entailed a business crumble. Women’s and working class men’s enfranchisement did not result in a meltdown of our political system. In the same sort of vein, where LGBT people have been allowed openly to serve in the army, the objection that this will hurt or distract the forces looks rather spurious.

We need to see these formulaic objections for what they really are: a smokescreen for prejudice, sexism, and fear of changing the gendered status quo. “It will hurt business” really means “keep things the same at all costs”. Having children should not disadvantage women at work, or men in the home.

Fairer parental leave regulations might mean an extra form to fill in here and there, but it will not lead to a collapse in the economy. Given what we know about the real causes of economic collapse, I rather think that David Frost and his ilk might concentrate their objections elsewhere.

Ray Filar blogs here.

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8 Responses to ““Business” is no excuse for prejudice”

  1. EllaP-D says:

    As I see it, increasing paternity leave is one of the primary catalysts for gender equality. We really need to leave the idea behind that women “have” the baby: women give birth to the baby, but responsibility for loving and caring for the child once its in the world is unequivocally that of both parents. Giving men their rightful stake in the homeplace will make gender relations more flexible and more empowering for women in careers. Guys: I’m sure you’re just as good at changing nappies as we are at running a business.

  2. Hugh says:

    There is a quantitative debate to be had here as well, quite apart from gender equality: the increased productivity of happy workers vs. the cost of compliance with regulations (which is a real thing, btw, I got paid handsomely one summer to do it for an underwriting company and I can’t imagine that a dry-cleaning one could have so easily afforded it).

    Can’t really open this up with any research on the matter myself, unfortunately. Perhaps someone else can. NEF? Someone openly comfortable with appealing to people’s profit motives?

  3. iain ker says:

    I’m trying to think how I can sum up your article in one (small) sentence.

    Give me a second… it’s coming to me…ah yes here it is.

    ‘I have never run a business’.

  4. AmberStar says:

    I have helped to run several businesses. And part of managing a business is dealing with things like key men or women needing leave for personal reasons.
    It’s a fact of business life, like dealing with suppliers who want to raise their prices, scheduling repair & maintenance work etc.

    All the business people who make a fuss about employees being entitled to time off are rentiers who want a business that pretty much runs itself, whilst they skim a profit for not doing very much.

  5. iain ker says:

    Amber Star

    ‘I have helped to run several businesses’.


    Hmm, a bit vague that. Not sure helping out in a Sue Ryder shop on a Saturday morning is quite what I had in mind.

    Try running a business with a loan secured on your family home – if your business goes, so does the family home; I don’t think you would be on here blathering about ‘rentiers’ and ‘skimming’.

    Outside the Chatterers’ Nirvana (and here in the real world) it is plain, that the more expensive a government makes it to hire employees, whether this is in time off or bureaucracy or payroll tax then the less inclined are businesses to hire employees (or at least employees in Britain).

    Have you seen the unemployment figures recently?

    Digby Jones is forever going on about how China will eat our lunch and India will eat our dinner. He puts it in the forward tense; I don’t know why because it’s happening now.

    Like I said – have you seen the unemployment figures recently?

  6. Ray Filar says:

    @Ella P-D
    Completely agree!

    I would also be interested to know if there are any current answers on that one.

    @Iain Ker
    Yes, the entire difference between your (small) sentence and my article is that your sentence has a paucity of adverbs. Alternatively, we could stop the sniping and focus on the issues at hand.

    Also, you’re making an entirely incorrect assumption. I once ran a business for about a week, when I was thirteen, selling ‘cannabis flavoured’ lollipops to kids at school.

    Yes, and good to hear that from someone with real experience.

  7. Robin Thorpe says:

    I think that is is extremely unlikely that any progress will be made on the point you make about the first 18 or 26 weeks being devoted exclusively to maternity leave (as opposed to letting the male parent take responsibility for child-care) because the present government will continue with the previous administrations propaganda on “breast is best”. By this I mean that to permit the male parent to be at home denies the child’s access to breast-milk (or at the very least makes it difficult). I know that breast-milk has its advantages and the first few weeks can be especially important, however the evidence for breast-milk is not incontrovertible. Some studies show that after the first month formula milk is a more efficient food source. This propaganda campaign for breast-feeding is another case where women are treated as inferior citizens; they are not supplied with all the facts.
    The side effect of the propaganda is that women who can’t breast-feed are made to feel like failures and those who choose not to are made to feel like bad mothers. It would also appear that the rights of male parents are to be subjugated to the altar of conservatism that dictates what is good for society – men can’t breast-feed and breast-is-best so therefore the little woman must stay at home and look after baby.
    (to clarify I speak as the father of two children; the first was bottle-fed [boo hiss from the NHS propaganda team]. The second was breast-fed [Mummy reports that she felt more of a bond, however health of second child has not been as good]. I am not against breast-feeding, I just don’t think that mothers should be cornered into making decisions by governmental policy. For the record I would not have taken any more time off, as I feel most men will not, as I could not afford to live on SPP)

  8. Neville says:

    I understand where Iain is coming from but the answer is to be be flexible with working practises. If your work is capable of being done at home. and much is these days, it is perfectly possible to combine child care and work. I was happy to work a longer day by extending home working to allow me to participate in childcare. It gave great satisfaction and the fact that it meant overall far longer hours was compensated for in that way. If you have employees who are well motivated and whom you trust this should be possible. We cannot continue to live in the stone age as the excellent article suggests.

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