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Nicola Brewer, Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, argues that we need to explore legislative change to tackle the significant inequality between maternity and paternity leave.
Ms Brewer claims the present rights of mothers and fathers appears to support the idea that fathers are 'optional seasoning' in children's lives while mothers are the main carers. The division between maternity and paternity leave could be entrenching the view that women are the ones who have to pay the career price for motherhood.
In a speech yesterday to launch a major consultation -Working Better - into flexible working in partnership with Mumsnet.com and Dad.info she welcomed present maternity leave rights but said we have to explore ways of allowing more rights for fathers.
She also said that flexible working is the way forward for everyone in the workforce, whether it's a husband caring for his disabled wife, someone who wants to ease into retirement or a couple looking after an older parent.
Turning to the issue of maternity and paternity leave, she said: "No-one is suggesting that women should not have the rights they have to maternity leave, what we are saying is that dads need a slice of the action too. The present unequal sharing of caring has created generations of 'Salt and Pepper dads'. I mean fathers who are seen as good 'seasoning' for a family but not essential for parenting."
Ms Brewer praised legislation that provides more rights for women at work. "Since 1997 the increase in maternity leave has been dramatic and welcome. But in not allowing fathers good rights as well, I think it presents us with an inconvenient truth. Has policy on maternity leave made too many assumptions about the choices families will make and as a result entrenched the stereotype that it is women who do the caring and men who do the earning?
"Clearly mother and baby need to be together in the early months but what is the justification for the right to leave from 6 months still being seen as an issue in the main for women? At that point couldn't it become 'parental leave', shared by mums and dads depending on the family circumstances? And the key is, for men, at that stage, shouldn't it be paid? Shouldn't dads have the right to the first 12 weeks paternity leave paid at 90% of their salary? Should public spending be reprioritised to focus on giving real choice to every family?"
Ms Brewer said that we also needed to extend the debate beyond the economic case for better ways of working. "Where does well-being and our sense of community and the need for a good family life fit into this debate?" she said. "This is about more than pounds and pence, it is about happiness and satisfaction. What sort of society do we want to be? We talk about the penalty for taking time out of work to raise children and the 'cost' of motherhood but are we forgetting about the other side of the coin? What cost are men paying by missing out on raising children?"
The Commission begins its consultation today and will produce a major report in the new year. Uniquely, the Commission is partnering with Mumsnet.com and Dad.info in an online consultation called Homefront to give families a platform to explain the issues they face balancing work and life.
Duncan Fisher of Dad.Info said: "We have this idea that mothers and fathers freely choose their roles. They don't. 80% of mothers earn less than their partners, part-time work is badly paid and only full-time work creates enough security for most families, there is no affordable leave for fathers.
"If families could afford for dads to take time off for childcare, most would choose this, as in every other country that has acted to change the economics."
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