Maternity is not a career choice

Parental leave is not a favour businesses do for women; it can be good for companies too

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Championing parental leave equality: Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli speaks during a vote in favour of improving maternity leave laws at the European Parliament

The onus of parental leave has always been on women. Women are the ones who choose to interrupt their careers at pivotal junctions, who cost their employers time and money, and abandon their partners to produce an income, while they stay home with the baby.

It is this type of misguided and outdated rhetoric that hurts women and the businesses who employ them. The continued reference to motherhood as the most important job a woman will ever have hurts the way women are perceived in the workplace. Parental leave should not be regarded as a women’s issue. In order for women to be able to contribute to their full potential, they need to be treated as equal workers, not as mothers.

Sharing the role
Though European countries have been evolving in the way the issue is addressed, it is not enough. Scandinavian countries have ample provisions for both men and women to share the responsibility of childcare during infancy, and that has a huge effect on inequality indexes. It is not a coincidence that there are more women CEOs in Scandinavia than anywhere else. The inequality in the treatment of men and women as parents colludes to the stigmatisation of women and the entrenchment of traditional gender stereotypes in the business world. Men are seldom perceived as being fathers before bosses.

It is high time we move into a more flexible and dynamic business age, where women are more than mothers-to-be, stay-at-home fathers are part of the norm

As maternity leave is slowly replaced by shared parental leave, the office gender dichotomy is being challenged – but not fast enough. As well as laying down effective egalitarian legislation, governments need to do more to challenge stereotypes and remove the stigma too often associated with men who choose to be stay-at-home fathers.

More must be done to support small and medium-sized companies in offering flexible parental leave to all employees. There are still small companies reluctant to hire women because of the cost a pregnancy can have on payroll. Increased communication between employers and employees about these issues can go a long way in finding suitable alternatives and allowing the employer to plan ahead. Shared parental leave helps distribute thew responsibility of prolonged absences between both parents, and helps smooth out these sometimes-difficult transition periods for employers.

Different discourse
Plenty of people would argue that long, generous and mandatory parental leave damages business, but we need look no further than the US to see how harmful this attitude can be for both women and children. There is little to no provision for maternity leave, and shared parental time off is but a distant dream. Often women drop out of the workforce altogether to have and raise children, as their jobs are only protected for six weeks. However, California is leading the way in reforming the system and research suggests the new model is beneficial for everyone. But for reform to happen universally we need to change our discourse and start accepting that children are a part of life, not a career choice.

The only way to ensure that parental leave is minimally disruptive for companies, and that women are achieving their full potential, is to challenge the notion of traditional gender roles in favour of a more inclusive approach to business and family life alike. It is high time we move into a more flexible and dynamic business age, where women are more than mothers-to-be, stay-at-home fathers are part of the norm, and the glass ceiling is just a skylight.