/ 9 February 2022

Parental leave laws work against mothers and fathers

Large Migration Surge Crosses Rio Grande
Women get 16 weeks of leave and men two weeks to look after their newborn. This drives women from work and prevents men from participating in child rearing. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

In January my wife and I celebrated the nine-month birthday of our first child, James. My journey as a father could be described as unusual when compared to that of most other men. After an unsuccessful attempt to apply for maternity leave from my (now former) employer, I made the decision to take a six-month break from work to look after our new arrival. Of all the lessons I’ve learned during this time (measuring baby birthdays in months being one of them) the most important I believe is this: if we are serious about women’s participation in the economy, we need to get serious about paternity leave for men.

Under current South African law, women are entitled to 16 weeks of maternity leave compared to two  weeks of paternity leave offered to men. This all but precludes men from participating in the 8-to-5 rigours of child rearing. Left with no choice, women are forced out of the workforce for extended periods of time to focus on the work that men are — by law — precluded from participating in.

In our case, one of the key considerations in deciding that I would be the homebound parent was the fact that my wife is the founder of two small businesses (she’s recently added a third to the stable). As any small business owner would know, the founder often plays the role of sales manager, marketer, public relations expert, finance specialist, HR manager and IT geek. Their presence is the force that drives the business forward and their absence is immediately felt. 

By not allowing men to meaningfully share in the day-to-day childcare activities, we are leaving female business owners no choice but to step away from their businesses during early parenthood. This jeopardises the longevity of their business, risking not only their own livelihoods but also the livelihoods of those who depend on them for employment. This should be particularly troublesome in a country like ours where we have seen the number of female-run small businesses drop from 61% in 2001 to 40% in 2017. 

Women in full-time employment experience similar difficulties. Forcing women to take career breaks excludes them from training and promotion opportunities that may become available in their absence. Research suggests that women who take longer maternity leave are perceived as being less committed to their jobs and receive poorer evaluations for leadership positions. Although one must always take research with a grain of salt, this echoes real-world surveys in which 43% of women cited concerns over job security and promotions as reasons they would return from maternity leave earlier than they would have liked to.

Critics of comprehensive paternity benefits often cite the stereotype that women are naturally more nurturing than men. Although this is accurate on average, it confuses the average with the individual. To illustrate this point, consider something like human height. It is a truism that the average man is taller than the average woman, but that doesn’t mean that all men are taller than all women. Just so with personality traits like agreeableness (the tendency to be warm, kind, and considerate), which is believed to be positively associated with improved developmental outcomes in toddlers. Although most women are more agreeable than most men, there are still many men who are more agreeable than the average woman. Not most men, but many.

A more reasonable concern raised by opponents of longer paternity leave is cost. If men were to become entitled to 16 weeks of paternity leave on top of that already granted to women, it could have a detrimental effect on business and government coffers. This critique cannot be ignored, especially in a country suffering from stagnating economic growth and excessive government debt. But the issue of increasing cost can be avoided by simply using what we already have more efficiently. 

South Africa could follow the approach taken by countries such as Sweden or Denmark, where parental leave sharing has been implemented. Such an arrangement would see the existing 18 weeks of parental leave (16 weeks for women plus two weeks for men) allocated to the family unit to do with as they see fit. Not only does this render concerns about costs redundant, but it would allow families to decide what leave arrangement makes the most sense in their particular circumstances.

Every August, South Africans come together to celebrate Women’s Month. Discussion about women in business ensues followed by the customary lamentations by government and business alike about the lack of progress in female empowerment. Yet, it is these same institutions that perpetuate practises that reinforce the stereotype that a woman’s place is with the baby and a man’s is at the office. This needlessly robs women and men alike from choosing the path best suited to them.