Fixing the Maternity Leave Imbalance

Fixing the Maternity Leave Imbalance

In a previous edition of this blog, we referenced the sad reality that women are vastly underrepresented at the executive level in most companies. We discussed the various causes for this, including the glass cliff phenomenon. The conclusion? It’s tough to be a woman in the corporate world, the glass ceiling is still a very real obstacle to growth, and that this can create a negative feedback loop; when women aren’t at the top, it sends a signal that they, for some reason, don’t deserve to be at the top – a truly pernicious and problematic thought.

One of the causes of disparity between men and women is seen as biological; women have children. When they do, they have to take time off of work to care for their child, while men continue to be the breadwinners. This is seen by some as an inevitable consequence of the difference between the sexes; women, some would opine, will never be as represented in the highest echelons because when they have children, they simply can’t invest the time and energy necessary to climb the corporate ladder.

Let’s break down this thinking a bit to see if we can’t find a solution to the problem that has been posed. We could discuss same-sex couples, couples who adopt, or couples who choose to have a surrogate for any number of reasons, but let’s leave these particular cases aside right now and discuss a man and a woman who want to conceive a child in the traditional way. In successful cases, the woman will become pregnant, then go into labour and give birth. The woman can work throughout most of her pregnancy, then will take a break post-labour to care for the child. This post-natal care is seen as vital, so women are granted maternity leave; but what of men?

Ostensibly, men could do a lot of the work that women do; breast milk seems like the bottleneck, but there are pumps and other tools to get around that problem. A woman can return to work after as little as six weeks, and some women return even earlier than that, yet women will take months off of work while men continue to advance in the labour force. Men could stay at home and take care of the child while women go back to work after childbirth; there’s no rule that says being the person that gives birth means you have to stay home.

While no such rule exists, there are rules that encourage women to stay home and men to stay working, namely, the omnipresence of maternity leave and the omniabsence of paternity leave. Men work for longer, get paid more and advance not because childbirth is so burdensome, but because workplace policies encourage that behaviour. That’s why Shelley Zalis, writing for Forbes, came up with an interesting idea: mandatory paid paternity leave. When women and men must take leave for the same amount of time, we can expect a decline in the disparity between the pay of men and women. It’s likely the presence of both parents during the formative first year will help the child’s development, and will ease the stress on both parents; seems like a great idea all around.

Reducing disparity between genders in the workplace is a great idea for employers, employees and society as a whole. A women in business speaker can give you insight into the imbalances in the workplace, and to inspire collaboration and understanding between people of all genders in your organization.