Earlier this week, the law changed to enable men to share the leave that women are currently entitled to after the birth of a child. From 5 April next year, men can take up to 50 weeks of paternity leave, while their partners can go straight back to work.
The prospect of shared parental leave hasn’t gone down well with British men, according to a survey in the Daily Mail. Seventy-five per cent of men are opposed to the new law, rising to 80 per cent for the over-45s. Only 10 per cent said they’d like to take full advantage of this new entitlement.
I can’t say I’m surprised. It’s not the prospect of having to compete with women on a level playing field that frightens men, but the thought of having to look after their babies for a year. As a father of four, I still have vivid memories of getting tangled up in nappies and spilling sterilised breast milk on my MacBook Pro. The fact that, until this week, men were only entitled to two weeks of paternal leave was a godsend.
After almost 12 years of family life, it’s hard for me not to conclude that women are more suited to this work than men. My wife took to parenting like a duck to water, whereas I found everything to do with babies endlessly perplexing. Indeed, it all came so naturally to Caroline that she simply couldn’t understand why I found it so hard. Often, she would angrily take over a task I was struggling to perform, such as assembling a collapsible buggy, and then accuse me of deliberately mucking it up in order to avoid doing it again. I went from being the head of the household — at least notionally — to being my wife’s bungling assistant.
Defenders of the new law will point out that it’s not mandatory for couples to share paternal leave. If they decide that Mum is better placed to take advantage of the leave than Dad, then they’re free to do that. But in some households it will be more convenient for the men to take time off, whether it’s because the women are earning more, or because the men would actually prefer to spend time at home. Prior to this week’s change in the law, that would have been more difficult because only women were legally entitled to 50 weeks’ leave, 37 of them paid, albeit quite meagrely. Now men and women have the same rights.
But what guarantee is there that the law won’t change again to make paternal leave compulsory? Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution is the Feminist Initiative, a Swedish political party that won a seat in the European parliament last May. One of its policies is to force men and women to split equally the 480 days of paternal leave couples are entitled to, so fathers would have no choice about spending 240 days at home after the birth of a child. At the Swedish general election in September, the party polled just below the 4 per cent threshold required for parliamentary representation (its 2.5 per cent was four times the vote it attracted in 2006 and enough to qualify for tax-funded financing), but the Feminist Initiative is likely to do better in 2018. If it forms a coalition with the Social Democrats, this draconian piece of social engineering will almost certainly become law.
Some British feminists will hardly regard that as a knock-down argument. On the contrary, they will share the view of their Swedish counterparts that forcing men and women to split paternal leave down the middle is a necessary step in achieving equal pay. Even in egalitarian Sweden, there’s a wage gap of, on average, £10,000 a year between men and women, and it’s larger in Britain and America. At least part of that gap is attributable to discrimination and employers won’t have an excuse to pay women less if the risk of them taking time off after giving birth is no greater than that of men.
Caroline counts herself a feminist and believes in equal pay, but thinks that forcing men to do more childcare isn’t the answer. She’s worried that women won’t be able to concentrate when they return to work on account of worrying about their babies suffering at the hands of their incompetent partners. Her solution is to give women the option of taking the 37 weeks of paid leave in the form of childcare vouchers. That way, they can go back to work confident that their babies will be properly looked after. If only all feminists were as sensible as her.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.