In the name of the father

Rachel Lavin

Staff Writer 

A glass ceiling exists in Irish society for women climbing to the top of their careers. Women are consistently under-represented on boards of management and in politics, and earn less than men in general. In 2010 women were only 22% of business leaders and are currently only 15% of the Dáil.

While initiatives, such as gender quotas, help women get to the top (i.e. the Electoral Bill 2011, which incentivizes a 30% quote for female party politicians) they fail to address on a broader scale why so many men can climb higher than women and why those women fall behind men mid-career which ultimately leaves them trapped under the glass ceiling in the first place.

We cannot help women to advance without examining the wider structural difficulties preventing women from closing the pay gap or breaking the glass ceiling. Aside from cultural gender constructs and prejudices being tackled we also need to deal with the unavoidable issue of biology. Pregnancy and motherhood take an unequal toll on a woman’s career and how we deal with this disadvantage needs to be taken into account when tackling the gender imbalance for women in the workplace.

Currently women are entitled by law to 26 weeks’ maternity leave together with 16 weeks additional unpaid maternity leave under Irish Law. This means that women take up to ten months out of their careers for maternity leave per child.

There is however no male equivalent. Paternity leave is not recognized in employment law and employers are not obliged to grant male employees special leave on the birth of their child, either paid or unpaid. At most, fathers in the civil service are entitled to just 3 days leave with pay but outside of that paternity leave is entirely at the discretion of the employer.

Maternity Leave is essential to women, from the perspective of their medical recovery after the birth and breast-feeding. However, after an initial period of recovery, maternity leave only exists to allow to bonding time with her child and the special care newborn babies require.

So why is this extended leave exclusive to women? Aside from the initial biological aspect of recovery, there is no clear reason why women should be the sole beneficiaries of bonding time with their child, or why they should have the sole responsibility of caring for their child. Here biological differences end and gender constructs on parenting roles begin.

The early patterns of childcare, and associated housework, that emerges in the first few months are surprisingly permanent. A study in 2010 by the European commission found that the employment rate of women with children drops 18.8% lower than those without children.

Instead, women’s working roles are transferred to the domestic sphere. A recent Europe-wide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that women on average spend almost five hours doing unpaid housework, more than double that of men. Meanwhile as women drop out of the work force, men start to work more, as it was also found that men do paid work for six hours per day, which is double that of the woman’s average.

When women become the primary carers of both their children and their homes, this affects their personal career potential while leaving men more free to pursue career goals. Thus, when women become pre-occupied with the majority of housework and childcare at the height of their careers, this contributes to both the pay gap, in that they work less and the glass ceiling, in that they struggle to climb higher.

This disadvantage of the responsibilities of childcare and housework that maternity places on a woman don’t just limit women at the height of their careers, it has a trickle-down effect to those women just starting out.

If an employer is presented with a young woman and a young man of equal ability at interview for a new job, and the woman has an engagement ring on her finger, this signals future marriage, and probably maternity leave and thus alarm bells to the employer. It is in the employer’s best interest to choose the man, as if he hires the woman he can expect to have to pay maternity leave possibly multiple times within the first few years of employment.

Not only is paying maternity leave costly and disruptive to the work flow but replacing that woman is an added cost too. Therefore it is not merely discrimination to hire the man over the woman who will not be taking time off when a new baby comes along, it is simply good business sense.

However, the discrimination associated with maternity leave does not just affect women. While women are disadvantaged in their careers by this imbalance, men are also severely disadvantaged in their personal family life when not entitled to paternity leave. They miss crucial bonding time with their newborn baby as well as learning how to take care of that child in the same way the mother does.

Gender constructs dictate that men are the breadwinners and part of the lack of paternity leave in Ireland is the stigma that somehow being a ‘stay-at-home’ dad makes them ‘less of a man’.  When the new child comes, the imbalance in housework and childcare roles resulting from new patterns established during maternity leave can cause a strain on parents’ relationships, particularly if their lives before children had involved more equal domestic roles. Overall men deserve a chance to enjoy their new fatherhood just as much as women deserve not to be disadvantaged by motherhood.

The effects of these seemingly personal domestic balances in family life have far-reaching consequences. An equal amount of paternity leave to maternity leave would be an important step in deconstructing gender pay gaps and glass ceilings as well as offering men and women a happier home life and equal roles as parents, so that neither are missing out. There is a demand there too. A survey by the Family Support Agency reported 86% of respondents agreed that fathers should have the right to take paid paternity leave on the birth or adoption of a new baby.

Both the Irish Men’s Network and the National Women’s Council of Ireland are actively campaigning to bring about paternity leave in Ireland and there are many international models to follow as well as methods to avoid.

In an effort to help women, Sweden and Germany offered women more than a year of maternity leave but over time this proved to reinforce the glass ceiling as managers became more and more reluctant to hire women fearing their disappearance to motherhood for long periods of time.

Some countries offered a ‘neutral leave’ that could be taken by either parent but this always became maternity leave regardless. Some countries decided to offer more money to men to take paternity leave which helped men maintain their ‘breadwinner’ image of themselves. Many also chose a ‘Use it or lose it’ tactic, offering men specifically a certain amount of extra leave. This proved a strong incentive because in refusing that paternity leave families felt they were losing out.

Perhaps the model adopted by Quebec and California could offer Ireland the best results, both personally and socially. Both made it legal that 5 weeks leave without pay and 6 weeks leave with pay respectively could only be taken by the father. Since the law came into place both have seen radical shifts in parenting leave. While in Quebec in 2001 only 10% of fathers took paternity leave, by 2010 that had risen to 80%. California saw similar results. Paternal leave was 18.7% in 2005/06 and rose to 31.3% in 2012/13.

Not only are more fathers getting to spend time with their families but it’s changing the way men and women live. Domestically, men who take paternity leave are found to be more involved in their child’s care, such as bathing them, changing their nappies and putting them to bed.

Overall it benefits both the workplace and the home. As women can spend more time on paid work, men can spend more time with their family and the domestic/workplace balance becomes more equal for both men and women.

Women with partners who take paternity leave were more likely to return to work and work full-time, even coming to spend considerable more hours on paid work than those whose partners had not taken paternity leave. So even on a wider scale paternity leave puts men and women on an equal playing field later on in their careers when it comes to advancing to senior positions. Thus in helping women work longer, they can move up higher and thus it can help close the gendered pay gap and break through the glass ceiling.

These measures will ultimately have a positive trickledown effect when it comes to the engagement ring problem. If both men and women are expected to take equal time off as parents when children come along, an employer will look at prospective male and female employees equally, rather than having to take into account the extra cost a woman could incur over a man.

Thus overall, with equal amounts of maternity and paternity time motherhood no longer has to come at the cost of one’s career, and being a man doesn’t have to cost one to lose precious time with their newborn children.

As Lisa Mundy of The Atlantic Magazine commented ‘“It makes men more involved at home, women more involved at work, and workplaces friendlier for all parents.”Ultimately if both men and women, as fathers and mothers, work the same amount of time and have equal responsibilities in the home then pay gaps should narrow and maybe then we’ll start to see the glass-ceiling crack.