Paid maternity leave? It’s not about the money

There’s some shouting going on (and fair enough, too) because Tony Abbott wants “women of calibre” to produce offspring. Apparently we have enough children born of non-calibre women, and now we need more of those educated executive types to reproduce. Ugh.

It wasn’t a great choice of words. However, rather than leap down his throat (much as I’d like to, but I’ve been beaten to the punch), I’d like to look at what his comments say about the perceived barriers that women with careers face when starting a family.

Truth: Abbott has, perhaps accidentally, hit one particularly gnarly nail right on the head. There’s a very real gap between the ambition that we encourage women to pursue (degrees, postgraduate learning, powerful careers) and what they should do with that education once they pop out a sprog (which is nothing, duh! You are a mother now. Go puree something).

Our society urges women to seek powerful, fulfilling careers, but at the same time detifies mothers in a massive way. We want women to be successful, but not at the expense of their children, who they must be neglecting if they admit that they need something other than their offspring in order to feel happy and fulfilled.

So, to encourage career-oriented women to have families (and we need to do this – as well as the aging-population argument, the work-or-motherhood choice is gouging a divide in society), we need to demonstrate that this is something society and their employers want them to do. The solution, according to Abbott, is generous maternity leave that minimises the income loss immediately after the birth of a child.

Close. So close. But no banana.

As someone working in a corporate environment, and who puts a lot of time and energy into her career, I can safely say that I’m not all that worried about where I’ll get the money for the first twenty-six weeks (or even the first twelve months) after having a baby.

No, what I worry about is, how will my career look when I come back?

Having a baby can and should change your life, but corporate workplaces by and large want that change to be as minimal as possible. Our hours are still more or less 9-5, and there’s the expectation that early meetings and late finishes will be easy to accommodate.

We make a big song and dance about “flexible” workplaces and “options” for working mothers, but in practice, this stuff falls down a lot. It all sounds good in theory, but too many women are returning to their workplace after having a baby, only to find themselves pulled in too many different direction – one simply can’t be at home caring for a sick kid and sitting at their workstation at the same time. Many admit defeat and quit to “focus on family” – others are ousted, with their “lack of dedication” cited as the reason.

Men cop it too, I should point out. The stigma attached to working mothers is one thing, but there’s a whole other level reserved for men who want to be hands-on parents and who are then not seen to be “putting in the effort” in the workplace.

26 weeks or even 12 months of paid leave won’t cut it if our society still expects – and demands – that children be parented by a full-time primary caretaker in the home. Parents who work simply can’t fulfil this role. We don’t acknowledge it much in this debate, but a lot of the work during those post-mat-leave, pre-schooling years is done by grandparents – an untenable situation, and one that offers little comfort to those whose parents are unable to shoulder such a burden. (I don’t know a massive number of people with kids, but the vast majority that I’ve spoken to, where both parents work, rely heavily on grandparents to look after small children.) The only other solutions are nannies and childcare, which are increasingly expensive and difficult to find.

Paying women for a brief absence from their workplace isn’t going to help anything if those workplaces aren’t willing to adopt a family-friendly mindset. The few months off are worthless if, upon returning, women are placed on the back-burner, their skills ignored and their input minimised, and their chances for advancement dampened. If we continue to value one-eyed dedication and long desk hours above all else in the workplace, what hope does any parent have?

Abbott’s policy is good on a bunch of levels, but his “women of calibre” comment reveals what he really thinks about the whole situation: that parenting is the work of women, and finding a way to juggle family and career is up to them. It’s not – if we truly want our most highly-educated, career-oriented men and women to consider starting families, there needs to be a change in how workplaces view the dual identity of parent and employee. A few months of maternity leave with decent pay is a nice thing, but it won’t do anything to drive the cultural shift that we need if we want to create families where both parents are fulfilled and happy.

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About missaleksia

Street press journalist and culture vulture based in Melbourne, Australia. I enjoy Australian hip hop, obsessively following television shows, healthy debate, baking and wine. My views are my own. Keep up to date with me on Twitter: @missaleksia
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One Response to Paid maternity leave? It’s not about the money

  1. Paul says:

    Yeah the response to the ‘women of calibre’ comment seemed a bit OTT, considering what he’s actually trying to achieve. It reminds me a lot of Romney’s ‘binders full of women’, in that it’s an awkward phrase that’s the result of a man who’s clearly not comfortable talking about talented women trying to do just that.

    As for the policy itself, even if it were about the money, the money doesn’t seem to be there anyway. So it’ll just be business as usual, probably.

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