The Telegraph reported a few days ago that 74% of women in Britain feel that they have the right to the same six-month leave that new mothers are given, regardless of whether they actually have children. No, I’m not joking. Henry Wallop writes that “more than two-thirds in favor were actually mothers themselves.”
This propostion is incredibly problematic for a variety of reasons. First of all, it’s insulting to imagine that maternity leave is something that all women deserve, by virtue of the fact that they are women – and is reverse sex discrimination, of a sort. It also trivializes the fact that women who have just given birth actually need time off – and that it isn’t an arbitrary break that can be taken at any time. Maternity leave is not some kind of vacation, and new mothers can’t take off and go backpacking, which is what Fiona Jennings, one of the women who took the survey, said that she was going to do with her time off.
“At 37, I knew that I would benefit hugely from taking a period of time away,” Jennings said. “My employers agreed to give me seven months off as an unpaid sabbatical. I leave for my round the world backpacking trip in three weeks.” She talks about her choice not to have children as if she had somehow been cheated, through that choice, out of a vacation that would allow her to undertake thoughtful self-discovery, rather than a period of time given to new parents who need the time to tend to an infant. The idea that the two are comparable is simply absurd.
I’m confused by why this survey was conducted at all, but it highlights some extremely disturbing views toward maternity leave generally. First, the survey operated under the assumption that only women take time off after a child is born, which ideally is not what should happen – paternity leave should be offered as well. Second, it highlights the fact that many people don’t think maternity leave is even necessary; Wallop quotes Nicole Pease, “one of Britain’s most senior businesswomen,” as telling a Parliament committee that she thinks “women have got too long maternity leave.” This outlook will certainly not change if businesses are suddenly confronted with large numbers of women demanding paid leave, because maternity leave is offered to others.
The editor-in-chief of Red Magazine, who commissioned the survey, said: “I think a lot of women who have worked for their employer for ten, or 15 years look around at their colleagues taking maternity leave and feel some element of envy and think, ‘What would I do with that time away from the workplace?’.” He added, somewhat defensively, “This isn’t a working mum versus working non-mums argument. Nobody thinks maternity leave is a holiday. Employers, especially now, need to incentivise their staff in imaginative ways and that could involve offering leave.”
But this demand for creativity on the part of employers really has nothing to do with maternity leave. If businesses need to “incentivize” their staff in “imaginative” ways, they should do it separately, without involving maternity leave, which should not be seen as an “incentive” – it should be a given. The fact that this survey was even conducted reveals enormous flaws in the way that we view maternity leave – as well as the fact that it’s supported by such large numbers of women, despite the fact that it completely trivializes the stress and physical recovery that maternity leave is designed to ease. We should be lobbying for better maternity leave and extended paternity leave, rather than conflating them with vacation time.
This one really needs discussion. What do you think?
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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