In its December 30th issue The Economist declared that "women are gradually taking over the workplace" and called women's economic empowerment "the biggest social change of our times." This is positive and important news, but perhaps it is claiming a few victories that have not quite been won yet, as many inequalities between men and women in the workplace still exist. One legal inequality, highly related to women's participation in the workforce, is the distribution of parental leave.
The case of parental leave proves that legal rights are still not equal between the sexes: when it comes to taking care of children, most European governments have a clear gender bias, making it difficult for men to stay home with their children as much as the mothers by offering them significantly less parental leave. Many countries do not offer men any paternity leave at all; or, it is either very short, unpaid, or both.
It is not only ideologically wrong to maintain laws that discriminate on the basis of sex, but the near-absence of paternity leave is discriminatory toward men who want to help raise their children on equal terms as their partner and it is a disadvantage to women in the workplace. In fact, one of the most difficult issues for career-oriented mothers to balance is work and childcare.
The EU has already taken steps toward changing this through the revised agreement on parental leave agreed upon last December, which is to be implemented within two to three years. The directive extends parental leave from 3 to 4 months for each parent, with one of the four months being non-transferable between the parents. This means that at least one month of parental leave must be taken by the father (and mother) or it will be lost.
The Nordic countries already have similar parental leave policies. In Sweden each parent is given two non-transferrable months and another 14 months to divide freely between the parents. In Iceland each parent has three non-transferrable months and in Norway one, allowing men the possibility to take out the same number of paid days as the women if they divide the remaining months evenly. However, in most cases, these men still take out considerably less time than women, partly as a consequence of men earning higher salaries in general. But in most European countries, men do not even have the legal right to a tenth of the time with their children that the women do.
The current parental leave system in most of Europe, dividing time unevenly between the parents, in all cases favoring the mother, is sexist, antiquated and discriminatory toward both men and women.
For women to be able to truly compete on equal terms in the workforce, and for men to be able to exert their full right as fathers, governments must assure men their share of parental leave by making part of it non-transferable. One month is a good start, but is this really enough? This still may leave women with almost 90% of the parental leave. Is that equality?
In Sweden the network PIFF (Pappor för individuell föräldraförsäkring – Dads for individual parental leave) argues that parental leave should be made completely individual and non-transferable. They believe that this is the only way to achieve equality between the sexes in parenting and claim that the only freedom transferable parental leave gives is granting men the right to leave childrearing to the women, as it is almost always the case that women take out more of the leave than men, primarily due to a combination of economic and social factors (there is much more social pressure on women to take care of their children).
Perhaps for countries where men only have a few days of paid leave this may seem radical, and even in Sweden it is not a mainstream opinion, though it is gaining ground. Yet, it raises an important point: is transferable parental leave ethical? In many ways, it is a trap that leaves men and women right back where they started, with women taking care of the children and men providing the money.
First of all, the basic right to paternity leave must be assured by putting the new directive on parental leave into place. But it is important to not stop there. When European men have been ensured their first non-transferrable month (a big step for some countries), if women are still taking out the rest of the parental leave, we must ask ourselves if we really have achieved equality yet. For women to be able to work on equal terms as men, the men must first be granted the right to their children, and even more importantly, the children must be given the right to spend time with their fathers.
Caroline Hammargren holds a BA in English Literature and Linguistics and a minor in European Studies. She works as an editor and translator based in Barcelona.
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