Systemic inequality with regards to gender is one of the more prevalent issues that affects society, most notably in economic terms. The ability for women to obtain an education and earn an independent living is a critical indicator for the health and well being of that country. Another critical factor in the narrative surrounding gender equality is the ability for women to control their reproductive health and obtain childcare if they are employed. Resources for empowerment and autonomy are not readily available everywhere in the world and the impact of this is invariably deleterious to both women and families as well as society at large. One issue with regards to addressing gender equality is the lack of solidarity on the problems inherent in this issue. One example in this is the lack solidarity on the subject of paid maternity leave for women. This is perhaps one of the greatest sources of gender inequality and some of the wealthiest nations on earth continue to withhold this valuable provision. The lack of paid maternity leave is the macro manifestation of the micro level individuation that largely leaves citizens to fend for themselves in capitalist societies. The lack of paid maternity leave is part of the systemic inequality between genders, and its economic and social implications will be discussed in this paper.
In ‘Talking of Gender: words and meaning in development organisations’ Smyth speaks to the current state of feminism in terms indicative of a systemic desensitization to the issue. Feminism has essentially become a talking point in which the sense of urgency to address gender inequality in developed and developing nations is being lost. The need to create new paradigms of equality that challenge the historical narratives embracing patriarchy is reaching a critical point. Much of the conversation surrounding gender inequality focuses on developing nations and those that have laws and religious practices that subjugate women. This has led to the false belief that in Western society, it is non-issue. This is false, and one look at the list of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies reveals the truth of the current state of gender equality. There are currently only 24 out 500 CEO positions held by women (Forbes 2017). This data reveals the inherent state of gender inequality with regards to women in the workplace. Women are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to gaining and maintaining employment, and one of the most significant factors that contribute to this disparity is a lack of paid maternity leave.
Men and women are widely believed to be on an equal playing field with regards to their ability to perform most job functions. The primary difference between men and women however, is the fact that women give birth and men do not. The act of giving birth to a child is a costly endeavor for a woman, both physically and financially. This places women on unequal terms in economic freedom and career advancement. Paid maternity leave is a necessary component to cultivating a sense of fairness and equality between the sexes and the denial of this is one of the means for which the patriarchal culture that predominates society persists. Not only is an absence of paid maternity leave costly for the career setbacks and economic losses that are incurred due to lost wages, it is a critical factor in assessing the variables that speak to the quality of infant care. In a study designed to assess the rate of infant mortality with respect to paid maternity leave, the authors found, “Average rates of infant, neonatal, and post-neonatal mortality over the study period were 55.2, 30.7, and 23.0 per 1,000 live births, respectively. Each additional month of paid maternity was associated with 7.9 fewer infant deaths per 1,000 live births reflecting a 13% relative reduction. Reductions in infant mortality associated with increases in the duration of paid maternity leave were concentrated in the post-neonatal period.” (Nandi et al. 2013, 6). Parents who are able to stay home with their children on paid maternity leave tend to have healthier children than those who do not. This data reflects the burden that a lack of paid maternity leave has on health, but it is the economics of the issue that is most demonstrable in its discrepancies.
One of the issues of paid maternity leave is that its absence disproportionately affects those of lower economic status. In the article titled, ‘Why some organisations take on family-friendly policies: The case of paid maternity leave’, it is stated that “Even where paid leave is provided, the available data show a strong pattern of differential access according to occupation, with higher skilled professional employees more likely to have such access than those in less skilled, lower paid or casual work” (Charlesworth and Probert 2005, 119). This difference in access is arguably one of the greatest barriers for lower income or middle-class women to advance their careers and increase their salary. The need to compensate for lost wages after childbirth becomes even more problematic when the individual is struggling to stay afloat financially prior. Thus, childbirth becomes a financial setback for those that cannot afford such financial setbacks, while those that have the means to accommodate time off for childbirth go unscathed. This only serves to exacerbate the current income gap that is prevailing in the Canadian economy and it is instituted through gender inequality.
The current wage gap between men and women is an estimated 15.8% and the employment gap is approximately 20.6%. In a study that looked to quantify the affect that maternity leave has on female employment, they found that it had a dramatic affect on job retention and reduced income disparity. The authors wrote that paid maternity leave “increases employment rates of mothers of young children from 54% to 70%” (Low 2015, 15). These data show the magnitude of the issue as far as gender disparity and the impact that paid maternity can have. The refusal to adopt a nationwide policy that secures a woman’s job and ensures that she is not financially penalized for giving birth is an essential tool for the benefit of gender equality in the workplace. The lost wages that are incurred in the event of childbirth do not just negatively impact families and mothers, but they have a deleterious effect on the economy overall. The middle class is responsible for a nation’s consumer spending, and when this falters the economy suffers. These financial hardships have an effect on macro and micro level and society this is precisely why the issue of paid maternity leave must be embraced.
Women make up nearly half the workforce in Western society, therefore they are a substantial portion of a nation’s workforce and consumer spending. From an economic standpoint, refusing to embrace maternity leave makes little sense. The fiscal sense is clear in the data, but resistance to paid maternity leave still persists. The issue is a philosophical one. The resistance to embracing paid maternity leave is one in which rationalizations for perpetuating the status quo consistently prevail. The culture of patriarchy that has been responsible for the gender disparities in income and economic status throughout the world is an ingrained mode of thinking that is proving very costly. But this cost is not distributed evenly. The cost that is incurred is much more substantial for women and families of low income. Therefore, the issue of paid maternity leave is not simply a tool for perpetuating a patriarchal culture, it is a form of class warfare as well.
For most wealthy and upper middle-class women, they will have jobs or discretionary funds that allow them to take paid maternity leave or buffer them financially one way or another. Mandatory paid maternity leave is a measure designed to ensure the security and upward mobility of women in lower income jobs or with little to modest incomes. The fact that there is a refusal to apply what has been proven based on data to be an economically viable measure is not simply an assault on women, it is an assault on the poor. The denial of mandating assistance for poor women in the event of childbirth essentially ensures that men maintain an economic advantage in the workplace. For women struggling with modest incomes, the odds are simply unreasonably stacked against them. One of the most important aspects of paid maternity leave that often goes unaddressed is the fact that it also ensures job security for women after giving birth. The fact that so many women simply lose or quit their jobs when they don’t have paid maternity leave is responsible for at least 10% of the employment gap between men and women.
Another reason for the lack of paid maternity leave is that the term feminism and therefore feminist issues have come out of fashion and can be met with hostility. Smyth mentions a ‘mainstream development sector’ and states that opposing to what’s going on with the women’s movement, this sector can create a problem to the free speech of gender equality. He adds that these actions are related with organisational changes and power relations. In general understanding, a gender activist most usually gets negative signals from other residents just because they bring up this topic (Smyth 2007).
It is an unpopular subject because it challenges the status quo and threatens to equal the playing field between men and women. The idea that there should be special allowances for women is one that breeds contempt among traditionalists. The perception that paid maternity leave is a special allowance however is precisely the issue. The narratives surrounding gender equality are often mired in resistance to change based on perceptual biases. These perceptual biases persist because in the hierarchal structures of law and the workplace, the decision-makers are primarily men. These men have developed a closed circuit of influence that make it extremely difficult for women to break through. This closed circuit of influence is indeed perpetuated by the very lack of paid maternity leave that would help facilitate more job security and advancement for women.
These paradigms speak to just one of the reasons that there is such great disparity between men and women in income as well as power. The system as it is currently structured has been designed to accommodate the needs of men while neglecting the needs of women. The rules for the workplace were set during a time when women had virtually no voice in the decision-making process for developing the standards for the workforce, and now women are in a position where they must simply react. Forcing women to accommodate to work conditions that have not been shaped with their needs in mind is extremely damaging to both the family structure of those that have no access to paid maternity leave as well as the economic security of these families. The unequal burden placed on women for giving birth is one of the last vestiges the patriarchal structure that has been responsible for the subjugation of women over centuries.
The inability for women who do not have paid maternity leave to maintain employment or income in the event of childbirth also has a deleterious impact on the quality of productivity in the workplace. When a woman is not given enough time to nurture herself and her child after giving birth, her productivity is likely compromised. This is why so many women simply do not return to their jobs after childbirth. They are often faced with the choice to return to work prematurely or risk termination from their jobs. If the woman is already struggling to stay afloat financially due to lost wages from taking time to have a child, this decision can be extremely taxing for a recovering mother and her family. Despite the heavy toll of such a swift return, many women simply must make the choice to return to work. Under these conditions, it is unlikely that the employee will perform at their best and the cost of early separation from a woman and her newborn may result in deferred costs of both medical care and competence.
In conclusion, to ensure that the workforce is as robust as possible includes supporting the needs of women that make up nearly half of the individuals filling these jobs. Women’s specific needs should not be considered a handicap and paid maternity leave should not be considered special treatment. Accommodating childbirth for women is simply sound fiscal sense from an economic point of view on both the macro and micro levels. For individual families, the burden on the health of the mother and the income of the family is such that they will have a reduction in their income therefore their discretionary spending in the event of childbirth. This is damaging for the economy due to both the reduction in consumer spending as well as the increased cost of healthcare that coincides with a lack of paid maternity leave. For the families themselves, there is a great emotional and economic strain that coincides with the pressure to return to work prematurely. The fear of job loss is a powerful motivator to push someone back to work before they are ready. This is also a powerful motivator to get someone to drop out of the workforce all together. If it does indeed become too emotionally, financially, or physically taxing for a woman to take adequate maternity leave, there will inevitably be a reduction of women in the workforce which is only exacerbated in upper management positions.
The resulting underrepresentation of women in upper management is both caused by a lack of paid maternity leave and perpetuated by it. Women are essentially being discriminated against in the workplace for being the gender that gives birth. This discrimination is legal because the precedents that have been set were not designed for women to advance. This design must change for the benefit of all society. The more women who can support themselves and their families financially after childbirth, the better the economic health of that community. Some companies have realized this fact and provide extended paid maternity leave as a fringe benefit, but for most poor women, this is simply not an option. It is necessary for policy makers to change the narrative surrounding the paradigms of the workplace and not see paid maternity leave as an accommodation for women. It is time that policy makers change their way of thinking and see paid maternity leave as a benefit for whole society.