Jane Gilmore has written a piece at King’s Tribune, “The glorified baby bonus” in response to my article about Abbott’s more generous parental leave scheme in The Guardian.
Let’s start with a quick overview of my opinion on Abbott’s parental leave scheme because apparently my thinking can be quite “muddled”.
For the record, I don’t think the scheme is the highest priority for working parents right now. It’s progressive in that it equates parental leave with sick leave (and this is important when parental leave is too often described as a ‘holiday for mums’), but in doing so it is tilted towards higher income parents.. However, I do think more generous parental leave is better than paltry parental leave, and a scheme based on minimum wage is, let’s be honest, very modest, particularly in light of international comparisons. And if we’re going to be debating parental leave, then I’m predicting there will be plenty of accusations that it is all a complete waste of money and if that happens then let it be known that I disagree strongly.. and the economic data supports me.
Now, on to Gilmore’s article. For starters, I’ve spoken to Gilmore and we’re both of the mind that it is something to celebrate when this topic gets discussed and we’re both enthusiastic participants in that discussion. I enjoy Gilmore’s writing a great deal, and there’s plenty I agree with in her piece, too.
The way forward for so many problems in terms of equity, including inside the workplace and inside the home, is more flexible working conditions for both men and women. I am in full agreement with that statement. That to make a difference flexible working conditions need to be offered to more than white-collar professionals and that they need to be taken up by senior levels of management too, for them to be seen as truly acceptable. Complete agreement. That flexible working conditions should be championed by everyone, not just parents, because everyone has important shit to do in their lives. Complete agreement.
And to some degree, I also agree with Gilmore that juggling work and family responsibilities is seen as a women’s issue and that this both stigmatises the topic and also means that men get to remove themselves from a sense of responsibility for the solutions. It also makes it difficult for those men who are already attempting to take on a more equitable share of child rearing and paid work in their families to do so.
I’d go further than Gilmore’s piece and suggest that if we’re thinking feminist revolutions we could do more than thinking about legislating this stuff just for the public sector.. for instance, introducing something legislatively stronger than the right to request part-time work upon returning to work after a baby for everyone would be a game changer.
Now, here’s where my views differ significantly from Gilmore’s.
Unlike Gilmore, I believe parental leave is, in part, a women’s issue and I think parental leave is about a range of objectives including, but not limited to, “closing the gender pay gap”. Parental leave is about broader goals than just workplace participation and some of the measures include not just outcomes for women but also for children. Giving birth, establishing breastfeeding and forming an attachment with an infant require time and rest. They’re all standard aspects of reproduction (and they all have economic benefits), and it says something about how patriarchal our society is that such standard aspects of reproduction are not catered for when we organise the commercial marketplace.
I suspect a critical difference in Gilmore’s and my feminism is covered in this post, “Why we should be careful taking the ‘maternity’ out of ‘parental leave’”, quoting Julie Stephens:
This, however, taps into a productivist ethos entirely consistent with the demands of the neoliberal marketplace, with caregivers replaceable or interchangeable in much the same way as employees in workplaces. In addition, a feminism promoting gender neutrality (in the name of equality) denies the bodily experience of women after they have given birth. Though a boon to the productive workplace, the breast pump may not necessarily protect the emotional needs of women and babies. To deny that baby leave is a women’s issue, to decouple ‘maternity’ from ‘leave’, is also to conceal human vulnerability and dependence. It reproduces what Iris Young has called ‘the normalising but impossible ideal’ that we are autonomous, unencumbered self-sufficient individuals, somehow beyond human dependency.
However, parental leave as public policy is obviously also about keeping women attached to the workforce. This goes some of the way towards ensuring long-term security for women but by no means can a single policy turn back the entire tide of structural inequality for women, and I think it is unfair for Gilmore to use that as its measure. No individual policy will “keep women in the work place and support their earning capacity”, it is always going to require a combination of strategies. And I note that Gilmore’s path to equality is predicated on the assumption that women must be participating in paid work. There is no mention of institutional changes that could benefit women’s financial security when they specialise (by choice or otherwise) in unpaid care.
Gilmore believes for equality to be achieved that the responsibilities of child-rearing need to be shared and I agree with her. In her article, Gilmore refers to data indicating that unless countries legislate for some of the parental leave to be used by fathers then regardless of other benefits of maternity leave, women tend to get stuck on a ‘mummy track’. (There’s an implicit assumption here I’m uncomfortable with that financial earnings, rather than work life balance, is the key to fulfillment, but I’ll leave that aside for the moment). The ‘mummy track’ includes not just taking parental leave when babies are born, but also opting for career-limiting moves, like taking part-time, low-level jobs and being the parent to take ‘sick leave’ when children are home ill. This becomes a long-term problem because one parent’s career progresses while the other’s stalls, and eventually it can appear pointless for a household to do anything other than rally resources behind furthering the higher income parent’s career. Split up and the consequences can be disastrous for women.
For the record, I support the case for generous parental leave schemes to include legislated time-sharing between men and women (it normalises care work in the workplace), and I agree that such schemes accelerate progress towards more equitable divisions of child-rearing and income-earning responsibilities. But by no means does this imply that parental leave for mothers is “nothing more than a feminist cause celebre that makes a symbolic nod to the significant gender differences in wealth”.
Gilmore takes particular issue with the fact that I focused my article around parental leave as an issue for women rather than one for both women and men. I understand this criticism. I considered preemptively addressing it in the article but subsequently decided I couldn’t afford the ‘words’ given there was a tight limit and I already wanted to cover a number of angles on the topic of Abbott’s parental leave scheme.
Although there are plenty of instances where I have talked about ‘work and family juggling’ as a topic involving both men and women, none the less, this concern comes up quite a bit here. I realise that some feminists (including many readers of this blog) feel strongly that the discussion should be gender-neutral and I have a lot of sympathy for that opinion; however, I remain of the view that while this juggling act dominates women’s lives I will often address the topic with women as the focus. And as I mentioned above, I have some concerns with seeing women and men as completely interchangeable parts in the experience of parenthood.
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