Paternity Leave Pt.I: Retiring the Motherhood Penalty

Sarina Bastrup is a second year History and International Relations student with an interest in literature, equality of all forms, human rights and beer drinking in London pubs. Preferably combined through good conversation with good people.

[Featured image shows an animated woman on a dark blue background holding a baby in one hand and talking on the phone with the other. She is shown to be conflicted between her work and household duties, illustrated by thought bubbles surrounding her featuring a briefcase, presentation, clipboard, and laptop on the side where she is holding her phone, and a stroller, cooking woman, cleaning supplies and groceries on the side she is holding the baby.]

Setting out to write this article I had a very clear vision and opinion: non-transferable paternity leave must be introduced in order to achieve absolute equality for women in the workplace. However, after having researched the status of paternity leave in Britain and the EU, I have found that it is about so much more. Paternity leave is not just needed in order to eradicate gender-based discrimination in the workplace. It is also needed to achieve equal rights for men and woman as equal partners in parenthood, and for equality for non-traditional families. In fact, introducing non-transferable paternity leave on equal terms with maternity leave will benefit all parents AND all children. So why is it still being debated?

 According to EU rules on parental leave “employees (male and female) are entitled to parental leave on the birth or adoption of a child” and, since 2018, every single EU country has fulfilled this by having some form of both maternity and paternity leave available for its working population.1 In the UK, the laws concerning maternity leave states that: “in total, any pregnant employee is entitled to 52 weeks of statutory maternity leave” upon the birth of the child.While the law concerning paternity leave states that “all qualifying employees are entitled to either one or two consecutive weeks of ordinary paternity leave”.It should be more than obvious that this is an utterly unequal distribution of leave. 52 weeks vs. 2 weeks. In attempt to even this, the UK introduced Shared Parental leave in 2015. Here the mother takes the initial weeks of maternity leave, and then wages her right to the rest in order to share it with her partner.More on this later.

UK parental leave laws also state that employers “cannot dismiss staff because they request parental leave or treat them less favorably than other staff”.However, discrimination based on the need for taking leave in association with commenced parenthood still exist – especially for women. A phenomenon most commonly known as “the motherhood penalty”. The motherhood penalty is a side effect of the leftover patriarchy found in modern work environments. At its very core it is the fundamental undeniable fact that women are punished professionally for having children. This goes for both pay received, opportunities given, and jobs received. While many will have you believe that gender-based workplace discrimination is an urban legend and that equal pay for equal work are a reality in modern EU society, the statistics speak for themselves. In the OECD, a club of mostly high-income countries, the median full-time wage for women is 85% of that for men.In the UK, the Economist found that a typical mother, 10 years into motherhood, earns 40% less than she did before giving birth. In Denmark, the country with the smallest difference, the number was 21%. In Germany, the country with the highest difference, it was 61%. In no country did the father’s earnings change significantly.7

This has something – if not everything – to do with the fact that it is traditionally the woman who takes the majority of the absence from work. In the UK, the pay received while on parental leave is £145.18 per week or 90 per cent of the average weekly earnings, whichever is less.This, however, is only valid for up to 39 weeks. Any additional maternity leave taken after 39 weeks, will have to be either unpaid, or covered by special arrangements with the employer.So, while the woman traditionally takes up to a whole year out of her earnings to receive only 39 weeks of a maximum of 90% of her regular wage, the man takes one to two weeks. Giving the man almost one whole year of full wages compared to the up to 90% of her wage the woman receives. And in the case of multiple pregnancies, multiple years of full wage versus multiple years of up to 90% of the wage. Thus, creating a pay gap between women and men when looking at the overall earnings of a lifetime.

However, the motherhood penalty isn’t just an issue for women who have children. In many cases, the assumed need for parental leave exposes young women to discrimination already from the onset of their professional careers – even if they are not expecting, nor planning to expect in the near or any future. For while it has been illegal to ask about ‘protected characteristics’ in job interviews in order to prevent discrimination since the passing of the Equality Act in 2010,10 it does not mean that employers do not discriminate. Young women will more often than not lose job opportunities to equally qualified – and, in some cases, even slightly less qualified – male colleagues due to the impending cost of maternity leave employers see written all over them.11 The fact that an employer will have to finance one or several rounds of maternity leave of up to a year for a young, childless female employee in the coming years, versus a week or two for a young, childless male employees is bound to play into the decision when hiring new talent – even if it is an unofficial policy, or a subconscious choice.12 (Not to mention the fact that women rarely get promoted to leadership and well paying positions until after they have had children, whereas the parental status of men play little to no role in the decision to promote them.13) However, if we introduce equal terms for paternity and maternity leave, young men will have impending paternity leave written all over them, in the same way that young women have impending maternity leave. Thus, we ensure that young people truly have equal opportunities in the workforce already from the onset of their professional careers. For although it is not legal to discriminate on grounds of parental leave, and although it is (hopefully) rarely a conscious choice on the side of the employer, one cannot deny the fact that young women face discrimination in hiring processes – whether they plan to have children or not.

By introducing paternity leave on the same terms as maternity leave, we effectively contribute to the long-needed retirement of the motherhood penalty. It is outdated, wrong and most obviously blatantly unfair that the earnings and opportunities of women are so heavily affected by their desire and God given (not chosen) ability to birth children. If we really want to preach equal pay and equal opportunities, the introduction of equal terms on parental leave is more than necessary. Without it we are telling young women and girls that the fact that they are born with a uterus makes them worth less. Literally. We are telling them that having children is a punishable offence, financially and career wise. That they are not a man’s equal. Essentially, we are telling them that our forefathers had the right idea, and that their place is in the home, or kitchen, making sandwiches and changing diapers. Personally, I hate cooking and diapers make me nauseous, so if not for your own, your sister´s or your daughters’ sake, then for my sake: make parental leave laws gender blind. After all, it benefits the men as well.

This article is part 1 in a series of 3. Next article is called “Breadwinners as Caretakers” and focusses on the benefits men will receive by the introduction of non-transferable paternity leave on equal terms with maternity leave.

Works Cited:

1Paternity and parental leave policies across the European Union: Assessment of current provision

2Citation: Maternity and Paternity leave guide:

3 Ibid.

4 HM Government: Shared parental Leave:

5 Your Europe: European Union: Parental leave:

6 The Economist: Having it all:

7 The Economist:

8 Acas: Maternity Rights:

9 Ibid.

10 Gov.UK: Equality Act 2010:

11 The Economist:

12 Workable: Reasons we need official paternity leave policies:

13 The Economist:

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