Moving from maternity leave to parental leave

Katie Hopkins caused outrage earlier this week by proclaiming proudly that she only took two or three weeks of maternity leave for each of her children.  She was arguing against the “Mumsnet mafia” that maternity rights are robbing women of power in the workplace.

Now, I’m not a fan of Hopkins, and I can’t help thinking that she deliberately picks a point to argue that she knows will be contentious to garner herself as much attention as she can.  But, I think it’s an interesting argument to be had.

Women have been fighting for better rights in the workplace for generations now.  Some of these rights are about childcare and maternity leave, and it’s great that these women are being heard.  I don’t want to go back to the days where women automatically lost their jobs when they married as the next step would be babies.  I think that excluding working mothers from an organisation (either deliberately, or by not having family-friendly policies in place) is a huge mistake for any organisation.

But, not all women are going to be mothers.  And continually emphasising women’s rights as mothers in the workplace, could actually be working against equality.  Alan Sugar caused anger, quite rightly, when he declared himself to be suspicious of hiring women of child-bearing age as it could mean he’d have to pay for maternity leave.  He argued that he should be able to ask women about their plans.  And this is why Nick Clegg’s plans to share parental leave equally between parents is so important.  The arguments against this centred around causing more administration for small businesses.  But lets be honest, we’re only talking about an extra hour or two here to check with other companies and fill out a form.  What the concern is actually is that male employees are about to become as unreliable as female employees.  Employers won’t be able to protect themselves from parental leave by discriminating against women.

And this is possibly the argument that Hopkins was trying to make (or perhaps that Daybreak producers were hoping she would make).  There is a current expectation that women will take a year off, possibly more than once, at some point in their twenties or thirties.  And like all generalisations it is really dangerous and unhelpful.  Some women will want to take off less time, perhaps handing full time caring duties over to their partner.  Some women won’t want to (or of course can’t) become parents.  And the current legislation, offering women a lot of protection, is viewed as a hardship by employers.

Changing the legislation away from it’s emphasis on women, towards an emphasis on parents is a great thing for women in the workplace.

So often, parental leave is seen as a women’s issue, as an important part of the feminist movement.  And while it’s an important issue for a huge number of women, and I’m glad that organisations like Mumsnet are so influential, there are also a lot of women fighting hard to not be seen as mothers.  And so I think it’s great that Daybreak featured two strands of feminist thought.  It’s just a shame one of them was Hopkins.

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