Every year, as we approach Women’s Day, we see organisations take to public platforms and express their support for women’s empowerment. These statements generally follow a rote formula: the Struggle stalwarts who led the march on the Union Building in 1956 are celebrated; the ongoing unequal position of women in society is acknowledged; and the scourge of gender-based violence is lamented.
What troubles us, though, is how seldom we see these organisations — whether government departments, schools, companies, or civil society — call out the very sexist assumptions, laws and policies that contribute to ongoing patriarchal cultures.
One of the many of these is the exclusion of fathers from meaningful parental leave. Whereas mothers are entitled to four months of parental leave, fathers receive only 10 days. The discrimination between male and female parents rests on assumptions that women are somehow more nurturing and more caring than men. It rests on assumptions that women are somehow naturally more capable of giving care to infants.
More alarmingly, it casually reproduces the sexist assumption that women should take a disproportionate role as homemakers, locked into a domestic sphere that communicates to them, their children and society that women and men are fundamentally different; it communicates, in turn, that men have a lesser responsibility in caring for and raising their children.
But this exaggerated sense of difference is anything but innocent. It is this exaggerated sense of gendered difference that perpetuates beliefs that men and women should fulfil different roles in the family and in society. It is the social policing of this exaggerated sense of difference, and the desperate patriarchal attempts by some to maintain the status quo, that contributes, at least in part, to the cultures that legitimise gender-based violence.
Gender-based violence does not emerge from nowhere: it has a history. But it is also held up by structures of power that are very current. While the causes of gender-based violence are highly complex and contested, and they should not be over-simplified, why are we not talking about how discriminatory parental leave is at least one of the factors that contributes to this?
Paternity leave as a feminist project
To be clear, we are not presenting the call for paternity leave as part of the so-called men’s rights movement. Our argument here does not spring from the deluded sense of some men that they are in crisis or somehow victims who are experiencing terrible discrimination in every sphere of their lives.
This movement is often a toxic space dominated by disgruntled men who see their unearned patriarchal benefits falling away in changing times. Such claims of male victimhood are absurd, whether measured by the number of men in senior management roles, pay inequality or the sheer extent to which men are certainly not underrepresented in film and other media (as some have claimed).
Providing equal parental leave for fathers is as much about creating opportunities for paternal bonding as it is about removing barriers for women. Equal paternity leave would mitigate the discrimination against women in the workplace.
This discrimination is sometimes explicit, enacted by those who are reluctant to employ women because they are more likely to take maternity leave or because they are seen to be more inclined towards childcare. At other times, the disadvantage is more insidious and takes shape in the inevitable career setbacks many women experience as they take on a disproportionate childcare role.
Rethinking parental leave should be about adding to the time spent between parents and their young children, not taking it away. This is one of the surest ways of acting in the best interest of the child. Rethinking paternity leave should not be thought about in terms of decreasing parental leave afforded to women, but expanding it to accommodate fatherhood. Various models exist internationally, some of which allow more than a year of parental leave that is shared between parents.
A frequent refrain is people claiming that greater gender equality will somehow force women to spend less time with their children; incidentally, this was a key argument that led to the failure of the United States’ Equal Rights Amendment, which would have revolutionised gender equality in the US.
But this argument is dishonest. Parental leave for men should not mean that mothers cannot take as much parental leave as they want, within their legal entitlements, but rather about extending this right to fathers.
But what about biology?
Besides prejudiced beliefs in a naturally maternal womanhood, those who try to argue for the moral legitimacy of a discriminatory female parental leave regime tend to advance two arguments.
Firstly, they argue that mothers need to be on leave to allow them to breastfeed. However, this overlooks the fact that a significant number of women do not breastfeed; breastfeeding is not a requirement for maternity leave; and, increasingly, many couples are choosing to express milk and then share the responsibility of feeding from bottles.
The second argument is that birth mothers need time to allow them to recover from the birth. But maternity leave is not differentiated based on whether someone had vaginal or caesarean birth, despite the different physical costs attendant to each.
Of course, a mother should have sufficient leave to allow recovery after birth, but let’s not confuse a fair and just approach to maternal health with a fundamentally discriminatory policy that tells us that some categories of persons are more suited to parenting than others.
Marking Women’s Day
As we mark Women’s Day this year, we need to go beyond the choreographed statements in which we celebrate, acknowledge and lament — only to return to business as usual until 9 August comes around again. We need to do the hard work of identifying and mobilising against those norms — whether codified in law, HR policies, or public discourse — that continue to give men and women narrow scripts about what our social roles should be.
Employers need to go beyond their well-written press releases and ask themselves serious questions about how they — as employers — are unintentionally complicit in the structural disempowerment of women. This is essential if we are to truly create the non-sexist society envisioned in the Constitution. DM