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Column We must introduce paternity leave – for the sake of women, too

Paternity leave isn’t just an issue for fathers, writes Senator Ivana Bacik – it would help women finally achieve equality in the workplace.

AS A FEMINIST, I want to see fathers’ rights recognised in Irish law – through the introduction of paid paternity leave. This may sound odd, but it is entirely in keeping with the founding principles of the feminist movement.

The word ‘feminist’ itself has come to provoke extreme reactions. Many men – and women – see feminists as man-hating, dungaree-wearing, dangly-earringed monsters. The popular image of feminism is stuck somewhere back in the 1970s, that deeply unfashionable decade. But at the same time, an ongoing anti-feminist backlash keeps insisting that feminism has been far too fashionable – so much so that women have really ‘gone too far’, that men are now the victims of these power-crazed ‘feminazis’.

The increasing numbers of women entering their thirties without being married or having children; the audacity of those who actually dare to forge their own independent careers, even the smart, sassy dialogue in films like Bridesmaids. For those unreconstructed reactionary journalists, politicians and writers who can’t bear the thought of women’s rights, all of these things just go to show what’s wrong with feminism.

Unfortunately, the facts as always are rather more complex. As a member of that dying breed – a self-confessed feminist – I have to admit that while feminism has improved the lives of many women, it has not (yet) changed the world. Women remain infinitely less powerful than men; economically, politically and socially. Men still dominate in the workplace, in public office and in private life. This is as true in Ireland as it is worldwide. And that is exactly why we need to change the law to allow men to take leave from work when they become fathers.

I became even more convinced of the need for feminists to support the idea of paternity leave, when I conducted research into discrimination in the legal professions in Ireland. In Gender InJustice (Bacik, Costello and Drew, Trinity College Dublin Law School, 2003), we found that male lawyers still overwhelmingly outnumber women at the top levels, although women have been entering law in larger numbers than men for years (two-thirds of all law students nationally are female).

‘Women get trapped under glass ceilings’

We also found that over one-third of women lawyers had experienced the use of sexist language; 30 per cent felt excluded from social networks essential to furthering their careers; and 14 per cent had been harassed or bullied in the workplace. When asked to identify the reason for the differential treatment of women, those whom we surveyed answered overwhelmingly that it was ‘children’. What they meant was that women’s childcare responsibilities tend to be seen as an obstacle to their career progression – a very poor reflection of our society’s view of children and parenting.

Across other occupations, the same conclusions can be drawn. In general, women get trapped under glass ceilings or stuck to sticky floors in workplaces and careers. The majority of low-paid workers are women, and after nearly 40 years of equal pay legislation, there is still a huge pay differential between men and women. Much of this disparity results both from the failure of workplaces to accommodate family responsibilities – and from the cultural assumption that women are always the primary carers for children.

Of course, many women do choose to give up or reduce their work in order to care for children; but the marked disparity in earnings between men and women mean that it also usually costs more for a father to give up work to care for a child. Feminists have always recognised this, and have campaigned for mothers and fathers alike to have more choices – but choices would be easier if fathers had legal recognition in the workplace – especially the right to paid paternity leave.

That is one reason why the feminist movement in Ireland needs to take on the cause of paternity leave. Of course, there are other powerful social reasons to give fathers time off when their children are born. To put it simply, a right to paid paternity leave – even for a token period of one or two weeks, as in Britain – would make an enormous difference to the quality of life for newborn babies and their families.

So all of us who are proud to call ourselves feminist should campaign for women’s rights; for equality, for access to high-quality affordable childcare, for reproductive rights – but also for the right to paternity leave for men. After all, stereotypes aside, feminism is not about disempowering or weakening men. It is about creating a better society, in which individuals are judged on their own merits, not on the basis of gender or cultural assumptions. It is not that feminism has gone too far towards this goal. It has not yet gone far enough.

Ivana Bacik is a Labour senator and Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College Dublin.

Senator Ivana Bacik
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