Off message: why cutting maternity leave is actually the key to closing the UK’s gender pay gap

I read with disbelief recently the claim by charity Fathers Direct that the government should switch its focus on childcare leave from women to men to help eradicate the gender pay gap.

Putting aside my affinity with radical feminists for just a moment, my real disbelief came in the realisation that sensible, rational and, above all, economically viable thought had entered the arena of the gender pay gap. This is a phenomenon that is not often witnessed when it comes to such an emotive and politically sensitive topic.

The argument laid out by Fathers Direct’s chief executive, Duncan Fisher, is simple:

  • Women get up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave
  • Men can get a maximum of two weeks
  • Men go back to work much sooner
  • Women don’t and so miss out on developments at work
  • Men are therefore in a position to be more experienced and get paid better
  • The gender pay gap gets bigger or, at very best, stays the same.

Out of the loop

As everything in the world just gets faster and faster, those few weeks can really make a difference. Take IT, for example – where a product can be created and made obsolete in the blink of an eye. Miss that and you’re out of the loop. Put simply, the longer you are away, the less employable you become. That may not be fair, but it’s the truth and I challenge anyone to contradict it.

To use an unfortunate metaphor: in the struggle to create more rights for women in the workplace, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water. You simply can’t offer women more and more time out of the office without admitting that you are going to entrench the gender pay gap. It’s just not possible.

Sensible folk have largely discounted out-and-out discrimination as the main driver of the stubborn gap in pay between the sexes (currently 17% for full-time workers). There’s no doubt this discrimination does exist, but it’s shorter working lives, less experience and choosing (or being forced into) lower paying jobs that really does it.

This is why Fisher’s solution is such an important one. In a piece of supreme irony, we need to give men more rights if we want women to benefit. But I’ll go one step further and suggest we then need to cut back on women’s rights, as I shall explain in a moment.

All this talk of sharing maternity and paternity pay makes no sense, will confuse everyone, and will be abused heartily by all and sundry.

Paternity leave is supposed to go up by another 26 weeks by 2010 , but why not just make the whole thing straightforward? Why not give everyone the same, be they man, woman, animal, vegetable or mineral? That way, you begin to create a culture where men and women start to share workplace and childcare responsibilities equally.

Push it up

Awful as it may sound, this could mean cutting maternity leave back, and increasing paternity to match it. Pushing paternity leave up to the current levels of maternity wouldn’t be economically viable to either the individual or his company. (Not that men would take it anyway – most struggle with taking their current entitlement as it is.)

Pushing up paternity leave a bit and cutting maternity to make the two comparable gives both parents an equal stake in childcare duties and in the workplace. If you treat everyone the same, people will slowly but surely regard them as such.

Worsening pay gap

The way things are at the moment is only going to make the gender pay divide worse. If this issue is deemed to be as serious as everyone says, and the demands of the workplace continue to develop exponentially, then one of two things will happen: birth rates will drop faster and faster as women choose salaries over bouncing bundles of joy. Either that, or they’ll self-select themselves out of the job market, and we’ll revert to the time-honoured set up whereby men are the bread winners and women don’t get to use their loaf much at all.

So all we need now is to find an influential politician who not only sees the logic to this, but is also willing to stand on a platform of cutting maternity leave.

I can see how that conversation will go: “Cut maternity leave?” the MP will say. “Taken leave of your senses, more like.”

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