Why Feminists Deserve Paternity Leave

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Our history is laden with evidence of the gender gap. Over the course of humanity, women have been depicted as the assistants to great men, the wives of noble fathers, worth only her dowry, and the companions made from and for Adam. In the modern era, we praise our secularism and tote our achievements; women are no longer confined to the home, and men are not their masters. However, residual forms of oppression take different names than the ones they were given centuries ago; they have simply been reassigned, repackaged, and re-branded by the ever-persistent patriarchy, in socially-palatable doses. Of the many deeply-rooted societal norms that have continued to trespass on women’s claim to history, our most repeat offender may be the expectation that women are biologically destined to be domestic caregivers, and that their priorities are required to align accordingly.

While the patriarchy rears its ugly head in many ways, perhaps the most tangible - yet somehow violently controversial - is through the gender wage gap. In the U.S., women on average earn 85% of the income men receive for the same job; theoretically, the Pew Research Center estimates women would have to work an additional 39 days per year in order to earn an income equal to that of the average man (Graf et al., 2019). At this rate, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that women will have to wait until 2059 for the gap to close entirely (Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2018). To make matters worse, this stark pay disparity widens substantially for women of color, and women in the LGBTQA+ community. Currently, Latina women feel this gap most intensely, earning what the American Association of University Women estimates a mere 53 cents on a white man’s dollar (Vagins, 2018). 

While the wage gap is not subtle, it is complex, and can be attributed many facets of our society.  So, before we can begin to address the myriad of nuances that have kept women oppressed throughout history, we must begin by examining the widely held toxic expectations for women, and investigate how these assumptions have affected our institutions, in order to find remedies towards pay equality. 

While there are many obstacles to address for women in the workplace, paid maternal leave must first be established as a basic human right globally, for the sake of maternal and infant health.

Firstly, we must draw attention to the lack of any basic parental leave/maternity leave in many high-income countries, such as Ireland, Switzerland and the United States. In the U.S., The Washington Post reports that paid maternity leave is not mandatory for employers to provide at the federal level (Ingraham, 2018).  This “mommy penalty” not only discourages women from having children, but blatantly penalizes women for making personal choices, blurring the supposed divide between professional and personal life. Maternal leave is crucial for the health of the mother and her baby; the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that providing paid maternity leave is associated with improved infant psychological development, improved mental health for the mother, increased vaccination rates, and lower infant mortality rates  (Gault et al., 2014 : 14-15). While there are many obstacles to address for women in the workplace, paid maternal leave must first be established as a basic human right globally, for the sake of maternal and infant health.

Once these basic systems for women and children’s health have been established, the next step towards gender equality requires deconstructing the gender disparity in caregiving roles. Though we have arguably made sizable strides in recent years, the residuals of prejudice and gender stereotypes continue to place substantial pressure on the mother to stay at home, while simultaneously encouraging the father to continue work as usual. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found in a survey that 58% of men and 54% of women believed “there is no difference in terms of which gender has it easier in the country (the U.S.) these days” (Gramlich, 2017). Yet, simultaneously, 77% of respondents agreed women face unfair pressure to be an involved parent, as opposed to 49% believing that that same burden applies to men. This persisting (and often unrealized) gender stereotype of women existing solely as caregivers translates into the expectation that the mother will sacrifice more of her career than her male counterpart in order to raise children. This expectation manifests in the policy arena through the creation of only maternity leave, while neglecting any guaranteed leave for fathers, thus reinforcing notions of female domesticity, while also creating an obstacle for fathers who do want to be more involved without penalty to their career. However, if both men and women are guaranteed leave for the birth of their child, women may not feel more inclined to pass up promotions or key projects than her male partner, thereby insulating her career trajectory to remain in tandem with his. Additionally, mandating the provision of paternity leave encourages men to take an active role in caregiving, institutionally reinforced by the expectation that he will take the paid time off. Eventually, the employer begins to expect both parents to take an equal amount of time off for their children, and neither are penalized for it.

The notion of establishing paid parental leave is by no means radical; perhaps the best example of the success of paternity leave is in Iceland, where governmental legislation guarantees both fathers and mothers three months of paid leave each, as well as an additional 3 months to divide between them at their discretion (Iceland Ministry of Welfare, 2000). Intended to reduce the wage gap and increase the time a child spends with their parents, Iceland now has the fastest shrinking gender wealth gap; since 2006 -six years after the implementation of the Act on Maternity/Paternity Leave and Parental Leave- the World Economic Forum reports Iceland has closed 10% of their gender wealth gap, and that it’s on a steady trajectory to narrow further (World Economic Forum, 2017). Furthermore, in 2018, the World Economic Forum ranked Iceland as the number one country for gender pay parity (World Economic Forum, 2018). Additionally, all of the countries ranked within the top five also offer paid parental leave for both parents; the U.S., which offers no guaranteed leave to parents, is ranked an abysmal 51st (World Economic Forum 2018). 

While yes, the issue of gender-inequality is multifaceted, and paid paternity leave is not a cure-all, nor automatically closes the gender wage gap, requiring employers to provide paid parental leave to both parents is a great first step. And, in middle-income to high-income countries, we can afford the investment. In 2018, the United Nations found that it was actually some of the wealthiest countries that had the worst parental leave policies; countries such as the U.K., the U.S., and Australia, while reporting high GDPs, fail to offer the same generous parental leave policies as less-wealthy countries such as Estonia, Norway, and Hungary (Ryan, 2019).

The international stage often experiences a “domino effect’ every few years, where the policy initiatives of one country ripple throughout the globe, encouraging change; for paternity leave, we already have the examples, and we already have the evidence that it works. Someone just needs to tip the first domino, and watch for the ripple that could greatly reduce the gender wealth gap, lift women out of poverty, and alleviate some of the burden that gender norms have placed upon the shoulders of women for millennia. 

Sophia Kingsley is an undergraduate student at The College of William and Mary, majoring in Government and Economics.

List of references:

Iceland Ministry of Welfare (2000). “Act on Maternity/Paternity Leave and Parental Leave, No. 95/2000, [online]. [Accessed 7 Jul. 2019].

World Economic Forum (2018). “Global Gender Gap Report 2018”, [online] page 10. [Accessed 7 Jul. 2019].

World Economic Forum (2017). “Global Gender Gap Report 2017: Top Ten”, [online]. [Accessed 7 Jul. 2019].

Gault, B., et al., (2014) “Paid Parental Leave in the United States,” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, [online] pages 14-15. [Accessed 6 Jul. 2019].

Graf, N., et al. (2019).“The narrowing, but persistent, gender gap in pay”, Pew Research Center, [online]. [Accessed 5 Jul. 2019).

Gramlich, J. (2017). “10 things we learned about gender issues in the U.S. in 2017”, Pew Research Center, [online]. [Accessed 7 Jul. 2019].

Ingraham, J. (2018).“The world’s richest countries guarantee mothers more than a year of paid maternity leave. The U.S. guarantees them nothing”, The Washington Post [online]. [Accessed 5 Jul. 2019].

Ryan, K. “Richest countries skimp on parental leave: U.N.”, Reuters [online]. [Accessed 7 Jul. 2019].

Vagins, D. (2018) “The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap”, American Association of University Women, [online]. [Accessed 6 Jul. 2019].

Editorial CFFP