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Opinion: 'We don't need female traffic lights. We do need decent maternity pay'

An economic downturn isn’t an acceptable excuse for unfair treatment of pregnant women, writes Lorraine Courtney.

Lorraine Courtney Freelance journalist

WHEN YOU THINK of gender equality, you think of issues like the gender pay gap, sexism, and workplace harassment, right? One thing you certainly don’t think of? Traffic light. Yet in Australia, a new initiative has posited the push for female traffic lights a step forward for equality.

The silhouettes feature a figure in a dress, and are part of a gender equality campaign in the city. However, the move has sparked criticism, with many dismissing the new traffic lights as sexist and tokenistic.

The reason?

Because they suggest that women can’t wear pants, too and because, well, traffic lights aren’t all that high up our agendas as we learn that a new report by the Trade Union Congress (TUC), the umbrella organisation of Britain’s trade unions, found that Ireland is bottom of the European league for paid maternity leave.

It also comes along with Mother’s Day, that day women who get to be mothers get to celebrate themselves. But you know who else deserves a celebration?

The women who have struggled to be, or are still struggling to be moms. The women who want children but just can’t afford them. Mother’s Day is a confusing, weird, very-seldom-wrapped-up-with-a-nice-commercial-bow sort of day for many women.

So what are the facts about maternity leave and what are women’s rights in the workplace?

It is currently illegal under discrimination law for employers to ask applicants if they’re going to get married or have kids. This is to stop people from refusing to employ women who might start a family and so leave work for maternity leave.

The duration of maternity leave in Ireland has increased to 26 weeks. We’ve also gotten a measly two-week paternity leave allowance. Thanks you guys. But maternity pay has not increased with it, and employers are not obliged to cover any period of maternity pay at all.

While public sector employers, and some private sector employers will continue to pay an employee in full while she is on maternity leave, the vast majority of women in lower-paid jobs, particularly those that come with precarious contracts, do not come with contractual maternity pay.

Some workplaces offer excellent terms, in the region of six months’ full pay and three months’ half pay, while off. Others are far less generous. When you look at maternity pay provisions across Europe, Ireland stands out as having a relatively long period of maternity leave but a low amount of pay.

Stable jobs with decent salaries are beyond our reach

When you’re in a committed relationship, people love to enquire if you’re planning a baby. Not if your are planning one, but when. But it isn’t just the relationship side of things that girls are struggling with. There’s also a pressure to have a stable job with a decent salary. This still seems very far off when most of us can barely afford to pay our rent, let alone afford a baby and that’s if we’re lucky enough to have a paid job instead of endless internships.

And if you explain the financial situation to older people then they go away from you thinking you’re completely selfish in your desire not to reproduce. We do get the pangs during every episode of Call The Midwife bit but we still can’t financially support a little person.

We know that some women are forced to return to work earlier than they would wish, because they cannot afford to stay at home with their baby. This is a massive issue for low paid workers. Almost three-quarters of those on the minimum wage are women, and half of all women workers earn €20,000 or less per year.

So, we really don’t need girlie traffic lights and other annoying tokens but we do need employers to pay us some percentage of our salary on maternity leave. Central to this is leadership from the government to tell employers that an economic downturn isn’t an acceptable excuse for unfair treatment of pregnant women in the workplace.

Lorraine Courtney is a freelance journalist.

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About the author:

Lorraine Courtney  / Freelance journalist

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