It’s been a busy few days in Irish politics. Joan Burton has been heard calling for an increase in minimum wage. Leo Varadkar want to re-examine the laws around who can donate blood, more specifically who can’t and why. Simon Coveney wants to be the next leader of Fine Gael, and is willing to end the Civil War to do it. The Iona reptiles have gone all Maud Flanders now that they’ve realised their basic argument against same-sex marriage is nothing short of bigotry. You’d be forgiven for missing a story or two with all the signs that the ballot boxes are being dusted down for more than just the upcoming referendum. Rest assured, if the general election drums are beating as loudly as it seems they are, coverage on this little nook of the internet will be more than extensive. For now though, let’s take a look at one of the less fanfare-packed announcements made during the week, namely the decision to expand statutory paternity leave.
Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe that – until now – had absolutely no legal recognition of a father’s right to take paid time off with a newborn. Depending on how close you are to the Baltic, the amount of statutory leave granted and subsidised by the government ranges between two days and twelve weeks, with – as ever – Scandinavia leading the way. In fact, in many countries (most recently the UK), the common sense option is in place. Rather than saying “mammy gets six months, daddy gets what the state can afford”, there’s a shared pool of newborn leave that can be divided between the parents as they see fit. There are still a host of conditions attached, for example the Norwegian “daddy quota” that says that of the fifty-six weeks (you read that correctly) of leave to be shared between the parents, the father must use at least twelve. Twelve weeks! Or, as I imagine is the more common outcome, seven months each for both mother and father. Or if it suits the couple, eleven months for one partner and two for the other. Or whatever the hell way they want to do it. Compare this to the rigid six months for mother and a cigar for the father and it’s clear we’re a few decades behind our European cousins.
So how did we end up this far behind? Sadly, it’s institutional sexism, of the most self-perpetuating type. Our current system harkens back to a time when in every Irish family, Daddy goes out to work to make the money and Mammy stays home to rear the kids. Not only is this hugely regressive when enforced, it also means that hiring women that had any designs on starting families carried with it a huge logistical and financial risk for prospective employers. This, in turn, meant that men would be in a stronger position to advance within their careers, which of course meant that men ended up with higher wages, which meant that it made more financial sense for men to stay working, and so the cycle repeats itself.
To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a mother staying at home, when it’s her choice to do so. Assuming financial circumstances allow, there’s not a damned thing wrong with either a woman or a man staying at home full-time to raise their kids. There is, however, something deeply wrong with a society that effectively forces this choice to be available only to one gender. The idea that the state decided back in the year dot that it should be solely the mother’s role within the family to do all the parenting is matched only in madness by the idea that we haven’t done enough to fix it yet, and while the recent announcement that paternity leave would be increased to 2 weeks is welcome, it’s still barely adequate.
Shared, transferrable newborn leave appears to be a universal positive (with two exceptions addressed further down). For mothers, it allows the rigours of parenting to be shared with their partner for longer than simply “what work allows him”. For fathers, it allows far more time to be spent with their baby during a time that is over far, far too quickly to be spent at the office. It also removes the vestiges of stigma around full-time dads, of which there are still far too few in Ireland. It’s certainly better news for the child also to have twice as many of those strange looking oversized people running around attending to them. Employers no longer have any niggling doubts about hiring or promoting women (yes, I’m aware, this kind of discrimination is already illegal. It’s also obviously still a problem, given that only one in three managers and only one in ten board members in Ireland is a woman) , meaning that family status will truly no longer affect one gender more than the other. This could be a tiny change that has a massive, lasting, positive impact on our society.
The two exceptions? The same two that face every idea (contrived or stolen) that gets floated in Ireland.The cost to the state is prohibitive, and “sure it’s always been that way, why would we change it”? I don’t think at this point that the old-school Catholic sexism that wanted women “kept in their place in the home” is really a factor, more that a lack of vision (and more significantly, cash) mean that this half measure is all we’re likely to get for the foreseeable future. And sure, this is absolute vote-shopping by a desperate coalition. All the barriers aside though, maybe it’s time we had a look at just how much the state can stand in support of Irish families. If we’re not prepared to take some financial bruises for the sake of parents, gender equality, equal employment opportunities and a more egalitarian society for future generations, then what are we even bothering with anything else for?