What is the debate around paid maternity leave really all about?
The debate around motherhood and its role has been good media copy for many years. The forces of conservatism ranged against those of feminism have delivered name-calling and vitriol that is the fodder of journalists and editors. It seems that every six months or so, a report is released which attempts to heap guilt upon the shoulders of those mothers interested enough to read them. Usually it is childcare arrangements, working mothers, stay at home mothers, single mothers or divorced mothers that are under investigation. Regardless of which category one falls into, there is always a columnist or researcher ready to suggest ways in which children are harmed by their mother’s (mis)behaviour. Where are the investigations into the impacts of fathering on the life chances of children?
When a female journalist wrote a heartfelt piece in a large metropolitan newspaper stating: “I am childless and I am angry. Angry that I was so foolish to take the word of my feminist mothers as gospel. Angry that I was daft enough to believe female fulfilment came with a leather briefcase”. There was an outcry and a flurry of letters to the editor in most major Australian cities either attacking or supporting her position. The majority of respondents felt she had exercised her individual choice. It was also apparent that many of the respondents were also angry, either at also missing the reproductive boat or at the circumstance they had found themselves in once they became mothers. A common theme among her respondents was that they had been “sold ‘a crock’…it seemed that no matter where a woman stood, be she a mother, mother-to-be or non-mother, something was wrong”.
Those research reports which relate ‘facts’ about women and their experience of birth and child rearing have delivered some interesting statistics. The Australian Bureau of Statistics released figures in October 2006 which found that pregnant women suffer widespread discrimination at work, with one in fifty demoted and one in fourteen denied promotion. One in five found that they suffered some kind of difficulty whilst pregnant in the workplace, either missing out on opportunities for training and development or having to fend off negative comments and facing a drop in the number of hours worked. The same report also found that 35% of women take paid maternity leave whilst 4.5% did not take maternity leave at all when their children were born due to running their own business or not having access to leave entitlements. This left 60% of the sample, 280,000 women, who took unpaid maternity leave or were not employed at the time.
This underscores the response by Australian women to the situation in which they find themselves once they are identified as a mother. As Malcolm Turnbull, an Australian conservative parliamentarian once noted: “There is compelling evidence that while women are increasingly accepted into responsible and well paid roles, their acceptance is often, albeit tacitly, on the condition they don’t have children”.
The commentary around this issue brought many vested interests into stark relief. It illustrated the lack of depth in the debate of issues surrounding motherhood, childrearing, fertility rates and the effect that economic incentives can have on reproduction. The application of Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) to the ideological positions of those involved in the media skirmishes will illuminate the myths on which their arguments are based, and can provide guidance as to the real issues requiring discussion.
The images used by the media and commentators of the ‘Superwoman’ and ‘stay-at-home mum’ have been developed over the last thirty years. The debate has grown more divisive over the past ten years, as the neurobiological development of children is researched . This research has shown that:
Virtually every aspect of human development, from the brain’s evolving circuitry to the child’s capacity for empathy, is affected by the environments and experiences that are encountered in a cumulative fashion, beginning well before birth and extending until a child is six.
The relative importance of this period of a child’s life has centred the motherhood debate on the period before a child attends school, and around where and with whom that child will spend most of its time.
The myth of the ‘Superwoman’, supported by mostly American feminist writers, has only just started to die. This was the archetypal feminist woman, especially popular in the 1980’s and 1990’s, who was able to juggle work, relationships, motherhood and self-improvement, without missing a beat. She was well groomed, her family life ran like clockwork, and she was able to reach the highest rungs of her chosen profession. This mythological beast started to die in the late 1990’s as women began to report exhaustion and high profile women opted to ‘bow out’ from the corporate world in order to pursue their families.
The ‘stay-at-home mum’ stereotype has a much longer history, harking back to the ‘apple pie’ images of the 1950’s. This was a mythical time where ‘real’ men supported their families by working and ‘real’ women subjugated themselves to their husbands and families. This stereotype became popular amongst conservative commentators and press during the 1970’s as women appeared to turn their collective backs on the family to pursue their own goals.
Of course, the reality of the lives of individual women was, and is, different to those images portrayed in the media. Similarly, the images and stereotypes used to back up much of the rhetoric in the debate over paid maternity leave have tenuous links to real women and their families.
During the late 1990’s a new group joined the fray. Generation X feminists started to make their voices heard, talking about what it was really like to be a woman and wanting also to discuss the role of men within the family. The battlelines were drawn between feminists, those ‘other’ women and the conservatives.
Alongside these debates is the growing concern, on the part of the media and Government, about the ageing of the Australian population and the effects this will have on economic growth in the future. In August 2002, Kevin Andrews, Federal Minister for Ageing, wrote in The Age newspaper under the title ‘The challenge: procreate or perish’. He argued that the Australian population is ageing; however the real issue is “structural ageing caused by the decline in Australia’s fertility rate” . This issue is faced by many Western countries and is usually discussed in terms of the threat to economic growth, the costliness of welfare required for an aging population, and the effects of a shrinking tax base. Increased immigration and increased fertility rates are the offered answers, and it is a reflection of the rise in xenophobia within Australia politics that it is fertility rates that are under the microscope.
Paid Maternity Leave
This first became an issue in 2000, when the International Labour Organisation revised the Maternity Protection Convention and recommended fourteen weeks paid leave, two weeks longer than the standard set in 1952. The United States, New Zealand and Australia refused to ratify the changes. This was an issue during the 2001 Federal Election, when the Democrats and Greens floated paid maternity leave policies that differentiated them from the major parties.
During 2001 and 2002 Pru Goward, the Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, began to open the debate more forcefully within the media. She made a number of speeches and gave interviews around the need for a raft of policies to support women in the workplace. Amongst these were “paid maternity leave, affordable and accessible childcare, access to flexible work arrangements, and part time work and protection from discrimination faced by many women as a result of their family responsibilities”.
In 2002, this generated a furore in Australia over the issue of paid maternity leave for working women. The debate was particularly vigorous in April 2002 after the release of Valuing Parenthood, Options for paid Maternity Leave: Interim Paper 2002 by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC).