Something really awesome happened in the men’s rights arena recently. A change that will benefit millions of prospective fathers in the UK: the parental leave rules changed.
Let’s take a minute to celebrate what this means. In the past, it was always assumed that the person who gave birth to a baby would be the person who’d be the primary carer in its first year. So mothers usually got maternity pay, and it’d be assumed that – beyond the statutory two weeks of paternity leave taken shortly after birth – dads would be the ones working in their child’s first year, while mums took on the lion’s share of childcare.
Obviously this explanation is pretty basic, and doesn’t take into account a whole bunch of stuff – same-sex couples or non binary people who give birth but wouldn’t identify as a mother, for instance – but those were the general rules, and they had a huge effect on UK workplaces. Now, though, thanks to rules on Shared Parental Leave (which came in at the beginning of April), apart from a compulsory statutory two weeks, which must be taken by the person who gave birth, parental leave can be split.
So: Dads are no longer assumed to be the ones working through the first year, missing out on things like their child’s first steps, or the chance to join baby yoga classes or hand-wash tiny babygros that are covered in weird yellow vomit – both parents get to decide how the work/childcare split happens. This is pretty fucking awesome.
Men – please celebrate this! Be happy! Join the party! Because it’s a step on the road to eliminating a whole bunch of stuff that really screws you over. From the big stuff, like the fact that you now get to have an equal opportunity to share in your child’s first stages, to the little but no less significant things, like challenging the attitude that Dad is ‘babysitting’ when he’s actually caring for his own children.
Ally Fogg, who’s written some brilliant stuff on gender issues from a guy’s perspective, welcomed the law change when it was first announced, but pointed out that we’ll need to change much more than just the law before we start reaping the benefits of shared parental responsibility.
“Most of us who have experienced it would probably agree that being a father, while often a source of great joy, can be a tiresome, tedious experience. The temptation is strong to seize on any excuse to skip out of our share, and society provides no shortage of excuses – from the boss who is difficult about time off, to the colleagues who tease or tut, even the lifelong conditioning about masculine mores, those corrosive, irrational but nonetheless very real mental pressures that say active parenting is demasculating.”
He goes on to say that:
“Creating a society where it is a practical norm rather than a theoretical ideal will take more than legislation, but legislation is a good place to start.”
And he’s right – when it comes to attitude change, nothing happens overnight. It’s not like the second these new rules came in, the world ground to a shuddering halt before slowly beginning to spin the other way on its axis. Change takes time. But we’re now one step closer to accepting that it’s not the case that women care and men work: there’s much more variety in different people’s relationships than that.
Where’s my men’s rights party?
As far as I see it, this is a massive victory for men’s rights, and I was pretty curious to see how it was reported on by groups and individuals who have been campaigning on behalf of men and boys. Given that feminists practically brought the house down when they managed to get Jane Austen on a ten pound note, I’d expect that something of this significance would warrant the men’s rights equivalent of a 21-gun salute.
The loudest voice in men’s rights in the UK is usually Mike Buchanan – founder of the ‘Justice 4 Men And Boys And The Women Who Love Them’ political party. Is he happy about Shared Parental Leave? I can’t tell. He has nothing about the law change on his blog. A search for ‘paternity’ reveals a bunch of rants about paternity fraud, but nothing about paternity leave – an issue which affects a far larger number of men in the UK. A search for ‘shared parental leave’ yields… nothing at all.
Parity – the organisation which claims to fight for equal rights for men and women but seems disproportionately focused on issues that affect men – has nothing at all. In fact, the section of its website relating to ‘equal parenting‘ only talks about divorce, making a fairly bizarre assumption that men only begin caring about their rights to look after their children when a relationship breaks down.
Fathers4Justice, likewise, is focusing heavily on campaigning for shared parenting, but only in the event of divorce. As it happens, I do think there’s a big problem with the way family courts assume that caring is the role of the mother, and the way this leads to custody judgments which tend towards favouring the mother in cases of divorce. But guess what? I think the Shared Parental Leave rules will be a great step towards eroding these assumptions, because fathers will be seen as important right from the beginning.
The Men’s Rights section of Reddit had a couple of mentions of the change, but they were fleeting and dropped pretty quickly from the front page. The biggest ‘discussion’ I found consisted of a few men who were angry because they thought the change in rules would result in women stealing parental leave from their partners. Which is… umm… an odd conclusion to draw.
One of those linked was from Inside Man – which does actually have a few interesting discussion pieces. One, interestingly, laments the fact that a large proportion of new fathers won’t be eligible for Shared Parental Leave because they are with female partners who aren’t currently in paid work. Why, it’s almost as if our assumptions about women as ‘caregivers’ has had some kind of impact on the employment landscape!
Why aren’t we shouting about this?
You might have noticed that I’ve missed something pretty significant from this blog so far – the fact that changes to Shared Parental Leave will also benefit women. And they will. In fact, if you’re a woman, the changes to the rules will benefit you even if you never have children. As soon as we remove the assumption that women care and men work, a whole bunch of exciting stuff opens up for all of us – men and women and people who identify as both or neither, as well as parents and non-parents:
- could we eliminate the discrimination faced by women of a certain age applying for jobs?
- will we see companies offer better flexible working options?
- will there be more career options open to people, as we accept that ‘caring’ roles don’t come more naturally to Susan than Steve?
I could go on about this forever, but hopefully you get my point.
While some writers and commentators (like Ally) are celebrating the change, there’s a strange silence on the part of people like Mike Buchanan, who are usually very vocal on anything that affects men. Why aren’t men’s rights organisations celebrating the Shared Parental Leave rules? I suspect it’s because Shared Parental Leave smacks of the F-word. Feminist organisations have campaigned for better parenting options for a very very long time. And, like all good feminist campaigns, it’s something that should benefit men as well as women: giving them more time with their children, helping them break free of expectations around who should be the breadwinner, etc.
I bang on about feminism all the time here, and nearly every time I do, someone will pop up in the comments to say ‘what about men though?’ and give me examples of issues which disproportionately affect men in society. I maintain that the vast majority, if not all, of these issues are ones which stem from our attitudes that “men are X, women are Y,” assumptions that feminists have been fighting against for a very long time. That’s why I’m sceptical (can you tell?) of organisations like Buchanan’s ‘Justice for Men and Boys’ that claim to take men’s rights back from the clutches of the evil feminists. Or organisations which claim to offer an ‘alternative’ to feminism.
Here’s a genuine men’s rights issue, and it’s also an issue for feminists. Shared Parental Leave – while it won’t immediately change the world – represents a big step towards tackling one of the most damaging assumptions about gender and parenting.
The solution to it doesn’t involve punishing anyone of a particular gender in favour of another, or removing rights from a certain group in order to boost another – unlike some of the bizarre policies in Mike Buchanan’s men’s rights manifesto. But perhaps that’s why it’s not great press fodder for him and his band of angry dudes. Because celebrating this change may well involve accepting that the best decisions on equality are the ones which benefit all of us.