Isn't it time to start discussing male quotas in parental leave?
When I meet other women at social gatherings or at work functions, the conversation inevitably turns to the topic of working women and more generally the gender-equality debate. We commonly discuss parental leave, pay inequality and even who cleans the house. I'm not sure if this is a result of me becoming more aware of the issues as I get older and my daughter prepares to enter university, or a general awareness among us that things need to change and that the rate of change needs to increase. For all our sakes, I hope it's the latter.
Humans can do anything
It's 2015. Humans can make cameras as small as a grain of salt. We can even build cars that drive themselves. Once we put our minds to something, it seems that there isn't much we can't achieve. Maybe this is why I find it so hard to stomach the fact that we can't effect gender-related change more quickly. If we cared enough, wouldn't we already be there? However you answer that question, the truth is that we need to take action and do it in a way that will equalise the playing field between men and women in the workplace and at home. We need a game changer and we need to prioritise the debate. Now.
Women can do anything
Women can do anything -- we can run listed companies, we can be engineers, lawyers, doctors and take on any of the roles that were reserved for men in our grandmothers' generation. In addition, the evidence is overwhelming that putting women in positions of leadership, on boards and in senior executive roles adds to productivity, performance and to the bottom line of a company. Yet despite all this, there is one fundamental biological difference that continues to distinguish men from women -- we have the babies and men don't.
This biological fact is also the basis for why women need parental leave and why our careers start to lag behind those of our partners. It puts us on track to receive less pay, to accumulate less super and it means that we don't rise through the ranks as fast as our male counterparts.
The biological difference contributes to a difference at home and in the workplace. For example, take the employer who considers two 30-year-old candidates for a job. After reviewing resumes that are "blind" to gender and background, they both land interviews. They are identical in every way except that one is a man and the other is a woman. They have identical education and work experience, they are identical in age and, except for their gender, would also have identical future career prospects. Only one thing differentiates these candidates. In an interview, an employer will look at the female candidate and see someone who is of child-bearing age and may want children. The unconscious bias (or conscious bias, depending on how you look at it) is that we look at these candidates and see one who equates to maternity leave and a break from work, and an extra embedded cost to the company. Clearly, I am stereotyping and not all employers think like this. But if there is an unconscious bias, it comes from the biological fact that women have the children.
How can we equalise the biological difference?
If we make male parental leave more attractive, if we even go so far as to make it compulsory, can we normalise the issue faced by our earlier two candidates? Perhaps we need to turn the question around -- If we normalise male parental leave, aren't we sending a very strong message to employers, to parents and to society-at-large, that parenting is not a burden for women, it is a burden and privilege to be shared between both parents, and one gender should no longer be punished for biology?
The sad thing is that this isn't a new or novel idea. The concept of shared parental leave is well entrenched in Sweden and Norway. Generally speaking, the Scandinavian systems reserve a portion of the parental leave for fathers. If fathers choose not to take parental leave, that portion of leave is lost. Fathers are told to use it or lose it. Sweden even pays a bonus if parents equally share the parental leave. The result is that 90 percent of Norwegian fathers take at least 12 weeks' paternity leave. Compare this to Australia where in 2013 where the ratio of mothers to fathers taking paternity leave was 500 to 1.
Do we care enough to have the debate?
Why, more than 20 years after what could be a game-changer in the world of gender-diversity, haven't we considered doing the same? Clearly, shared parental leave is not a panacea for all gender-related issues in the work place and there will be an economic cost to introducing the concept of a male quota. There are also fundamental differences in the economies and tax systems of Scandinavian countries and a country like Australia -- all beyond the scope of this article. But at a very basic level, don't we need to start the conversation about how we can make it work? Don't we need to think seriously about male parental leave quotas if it could be the one thing that stops employers having the she-could-fall-pregnant-and-need-time-off-and-cost-me-money reaction?
Dividing parental leave into male and female quotas would also address the issue that men face when considering whether or not to take paternity leave. Will this hurt my career? Will my boss think I am less dedicated? What will my colleagues think? I have lost count of the number of times I have heard men asking "how was your holiday?" when a man returns from paternity leave. Sadly, it happens all too often.
Until we remove the stigma that comes with the biological fact that women carry the children and give birth, we aren't going to have a level playing field. Men should be encouraged to take time away from their careers to share the privilege of being with their children in those precious first few years of life. In return, their partners could return to the workforce earlier, or at least have the choice to do so.
Perhaps male quotas in parental leave is not the answer, but isn't it time to start the debate?
Follow Shirley Chowdhary or leave her a comment on Twitter @ShirlChowdhary