Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Paid Parental Leave: Are we throwing out the feminist baby with the bathwater?

Yesterday a furious discussion emerged on my twitter stream about Tony Abbott's (Australia's Tory Leader of the Opposition and no friend of feminism) proposal to grant women Paid Parental Leave for up to 6-months after the birth of a baby at full pay (at salaries up to $150,000). This is my response to the discussion that ensued. 

Is it considered class warfare, unfair, that employees get paid their FULL salary when they take annual leave, sick leave, a sabbatical, or long service leave? 

If your answer to this question is NO then why is it considered classist for women, who are not taking a vacation but are giving birth (with the obvious exception of adoption) and raising a newborn baby, to be paid at their full salary while taking parental leave?

If, on the other hand, your answer is YES then you are on solid ground. I assume that you are fighting like hell to make the case that all workers be paid at the minimum wage or receive a welfare payment while they are taking any form of leave from employment. 

If you are not fighting against these other classist payments - payments that trade unions have fought long and hard to have considered as entitlements for all employees - then perhaps you should rethink the assumptions that underlie your objections to a 100% of salary paid parental leave scheme. And maybe in your fight to smash capitalism you could start with a more worthy target than new mothers! You might also note that far more progressive and less capitalist countries than Australia, notably in Northern Europe, provide far more generous parental leave provisions than have ever been considered here and these are provided across the population rather than being tightly means tested (e.g. Iceland provides 100% PPL for 53 weeks).

Alternatively you could focus your energy on working to close the wage gap between the highest and lowest paid, and in particular the gender pay gap that starts before women become parents but gets steadily worse after they become parents. (Hint: lack of paid parental leave is a factor in perpetuating the gender wage gap.)  

I personally find it confusing that anybody would find it more objectionable that a woman who has gone through pregnancy and childbirth and is now engaged in around the clock care for a newborn (yes, this is a 24/7 occupation) is less entitled to full pay than a person taking a ski trip, having their wisdom teeth removed or enjoying a 6-month sabbatical or long service leave. 

In my view the only real failure of the scheme is that it is not gender neutral* **. It is my understanding that this is a provision only available to women, and while this might reflect the reality that it is overwhelmingly women who will take advantage of and benefit from this scheme for both biological and cultural reasons, government should be utilising policy measures to encourage greater gender equity in the care of children. (For a good example of how this can be done, consider Sweden's tax incentives for fathers who opt to be the primary carer for a portion of the period of parental leave.)

The fact is, a noxious and untrustworthy male Tory has put forward a scheme that makes surprising sense. It is funded by a levy on big business so it will not result in discrimination against female employees (as it is not paid directly by the employer and therefore does not provide an incentive to discriminate against potential employees who are of child bearing age) or a general tax increase, nor does it take money away from welfare measures. 

It will make it possible for women who have been in employment for at least a year before giving birth to have a real choice in deciding to either stay at home with their new baby in the 6-months after giving birth or return to work, not only those women whose partner earns a high enough salary to enable such a 'choice'.  And it is likely to improve rates of breastfeeding in line with WHO recommendations (exclusive breastfeeding for 6-months), particularly among women who otherwise would have been forced to return to work earlier than they would have chosen if money was not a factor in their decision. 

I agree that any policy put forward by Tony Abbott should be met with cynicism and that his proposal is unlikely to ever see the light of day if he forms a government at the next election due to opposition from within his own party and from the business lobby. 

My fear is that in objecting to the scheme so strenuously, feminists are shooting themselves in the foot. I am not arguing that anybody should vote Liberal because of one (in my opinion) good policy in a sea of truly awful policies and overarching ideology that will lead to greater inequality across the board, especially for people on welfare who the ALP has itself failed in many instances. But perhaps we should think a little bit harder before trashing the concept of treating paid parental leave as an entitlement rather than welfare and instead celebrate the fact that both major parties are now competing for votes over who can provide the best paid parental leave scheme.

*Update: there has been a lot of confusion in the reporting of how the proposed PPL will work. It has now been clarified that fathers are able to take advantage of the 6-months leave but at the mother's salary. 

** Demands for gender neutrality around parental leave can be seen as denying or minimizing the reality that it is women who get pregnant, birth and breastfeed. For a brilliant and nuanced discussion of this I recommend Cristy Clark's brilliant post 

For a much more incisive analysis of this issue, and from a feminist with a real track record on advancing the rights of women (and particularly disadvantaged women) read Eva Cox's piece here and this piece by Kate Ashmor makes points I haven't read elsewhere about superannuation and PPL.


  1. I absolutely support paid parental leave, for all the reasons you cite. I want all women (all people, even) to be able to be able to give their best contribution to family and the broader community, whatever form that might take. Paid parental leave is one key strategy for making that possible.

    However (surprise!!) I've got a few issues with Abbott's approach. One is his incredibly clumsy expression of it, and maybe this is what many people are really dissing. While I can't summon the intensity of outrage that many seem to, I do think it shows rather abysmal judgement, understanding and communication skills for someone who wants to be PM.

    But a bigger issue for me is that the policy doesn't seem to have been particularly well thought through either financially or politically - and what's the use of a sound idea if its not implemented? I have no faith in Abbott's apparently passionate commitment to it, and I'm not convinced it will survive post-election. I'm so cynical as to think he's just exploiting the issue, and that idea *does* get me rather outraged.

    Finally, as you say, this is not a scheme for parental leave, but maternity leave. For women to have choice their partners must as well and I don't think that would have been too big a leap to make.

    1. I pretty much agree with all of this. I did manage to clarify last night that TA's policy is not just for mothers, but there are some caveats. Men can take the 6 months paid leave but at the mother's salary. I can see there is a cost containment case for this - on assumption that overall women earn less but would have been better to couch it as whoever stays home earns the salary of the lower earning parent.
      Agree completely with your cynicism about TA. What I am hoping is that this discussion about the policy pushes the debate towards more generous support for parents, including parents who rely on welfare payments.

      nothing for the poor and single mums
      ABBOTT JUST WANT S MORE LIBERAL BABIES,I think he is hoping they never return to work,

      he is a hypocrit and unchristian THE GST will rise and the poor will be hurt,then in,rates will go up believe me iv lived through tory int rises because of inflation all this does is cause inflation the bosses will pass on the price to us our grocery will cost more for lib rich woman to stay home and lest face it many have nannies so the woman play sport or go our for lunches
      NO way this a disgusting policy.
      int rates in 2006 6.5 percent 79/81 15 percent believe me I remember it all

  2. I liked Eva Cox's piece, I think there was a little bit too much focus on the calibre thing and not enough credit given to the policy. Doesn't mean I'm not still wary but I agree, it can only be a good thing that both major parties are trying to win votes with a PPL.

    1. Yes, agree. I decided to not even discuss the calibre comment in my post as what I am interested is the actual policy and people's reactions to it. And I do think in this instance the calibre comment was deliberately misinterpreted. It is election season so that is to be expected and I have zero sympathy for TA.

  3. Employees get paid their full salary when they take annual leave, sick leave, long service leave, etc. However these costs are covered entirely by the employer and are based on the employees salary for the job / role they are employed to do.

    The LibsPPL is clearly stated to pay women to stay home for six months to encourage bonding and to breastfeed. Read the policy - it states many times that this is the aim. In the context of employment, this is the role description. Why then should women be paid different rates to do the same job? Why do demands for 'equal pay for equal work' suddenly not apply here? This is not 'wage justice'.

    The second issue that funding for the LibsPPL is through a tax collected by the Federal gov't and dispersed through a Federal gov't agency. Every other payment done this way is considered 'welfare', and focused on prioritising those who need the most help. The LibsPPL sets a dangerous precedent for the concept of wealth redistribution by the Federal gov't.

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