Men need paternity leave. We all do. Not because men are clamouring for a chance to stay at home and change nappies but because giving men paternity leave will put an end to the corrosive suggestion that maternity leave is discriminatory.
There are few people of any political persuasion who disagree with Whitney when she warbles about children being our future. If there’s one thing everyone pretty much agrees on, it’s that if you give a child the right start in life, the chances they’ll be a problem for society when they grow up are greatly reduced.
Human infants come into the world utterly incapable of supporting themselves. We’ve all marvelled at the way foals pop out of the uterus of a mare, stand tentatively on wobbly legs and immediately start feeding. Humans are pretty feeble in this respect.
As a result, every time a human comes into the world, someone has to take responsibility for caring for the little blighter – at least until such time it can fend for itself. The point at which this occurs varies from culture to culture and era to era (some people well into their 30s who still rely on Mummy and Daddy, I hear) but it is an indisputable fact that, for a time, every child needs dedicated care – physical and psychological – for healthy development.
Historically, this burden has fallen to women for a number of reasons. For one, they have handy on-board feeding machines I like to call boobs and for another, a large number of them actually want to be the primary carer. These days, men and women are equally able to give children the care they need but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with women having primary responsibility for raising children, if that’s what they want.
Except that this has lead to women being economically dependent.
Now, we could make a decision as a society that we will pay women to stay at home and raise the children. I would be horrified if that was the only option available to me but, in theory, we could. However, the reality is that our economy is dependent on women working. In the last few decades, women have contributed more to economic growth in rich countries than have either new technology or the new giants, China and India. From an economic point of view, women are still the most unexploited resource available. If you’re a fat cat capitalist who wants more returns, you should be figuring out how to get more women into paid work.
Maternity leave provisions exist to ensure women can re-enter the workforce after having children. This recognises the fact that the burden of child-rearing and bonding falls to women and helps ensure that mothers without the support of a partner or family are not dependent on the state for financial support. It recognises that dual income families have long been a necessity. It means that more children have a better chance of getting a good start in life.
Legislation stops businesses discriminating against women (if you’ve watched Mad Men, you know what I mean) but because only women qualify for maternity leave, as things stand there is a financial cost attached to hiring a woman that does not exist for men. And while the tabloids and other sexist bastards who think we should never have been allowed out of the kitchen in the first place keep up the constant drip, drip, drip of complaints about ‘positive discrimination’ and ‘double standards’ there’s a risk that we could lose all that we have gained.
If men and women were to be granted equal rights to the sorts of benefits maternity cover provides, this pernicious chatter would be stopped. Businesses would build the cost of parental leave into their financial planning without any reference to gender. Yes, they’d whinge and moan and complain about the impost but the reality is that businesses absorb changes to their cost profiles constantly. Businesses exist purely to deliver value for shareholders: of course they resist this sort of policy, just as they go to heroic efforts to dodge their tax responsibilities despite the fact that without taxpayer-funded infrastructure they wouldn’t have a business. There may be a necessity for some form of government relief for small businesses in the short term but far from being negative for businesses, it would probably spawn whole new industries: at the very least a rash of new consultancies would spring up to offer them advice about how best to manage the change.
I think there would be all sorts of positive spin-offs. We may actually see family-friendly workplaces becoming widespread, see child care centres spring up in the heart of the financial district and see a shift in the gender profiles of certain professions. I don’t think there will necessarily be a seismic shift in the way we raise children (although the increased involvement of fathers through choice and policy changes is a wonderful thing), but after a generation we may regard the job of child-rearing in quite a different light.
What I’m certain of is that none of us can afford to lose the gains we have made in equality for women, and the best way we can secure that is by making the right to leave the workforce temporarily to raise children available regardless of gender.