Andrea Mara

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Family Leave Policy: A Chance For Change

“Ireland is better than the US but not as good as Scandinavia,” I said to the public policy student who was sitting beside me, “I’d say we fall somewhere in the middle.”

We were at “Families and Work: A Chance for Change“, a seminar organised by Start Strong, the National Women’s Council and ICTU, ahead of the upcoming Family Leave Bill, due to be published this Autumn. We stopped chatting as Start Strong director Ciarín de Buis opened the session and welcomed the guests.

Twenty minutes later, I was proved to be completely wrong in my assumption that we’re doing OK. Actually, in terms of state paid maternity leave, we come last.

According to keynote speaker Professor Peter Moss, out of 26 European Countries in scope, Ireland is the only one that doesn’t provide what is termed “well paid” maternity leave (deemed to be at least two-thirds of previous earnings).

“Ireland offers 18 weeks parental leave, and it’s unpaid – it’s the minimum possible per EU law,” said Professor Moss. And while Ireland is one of just three countries that allows employees to ask for flexible working hours, there is no obligation on the employer to facilitate the request. In 11 countries, working reduced hours is allowed, but not in Ireland.

According to Professor Moss:

“Ireland’s leave policies are based on maternalistic policies that assume that women take care of young children”

We’ve come a long way, with the extension of maternity leave to 26 weeks, and the introduction of parental leave. But with state maternity leave so low, and now being taxed, and with parental leave being unpaid, this is of limited benefit to many families. And once maternity leave is over, it’s a long wait until the free pre-school year starts, with nothing in between for families that can’t afford unpaid parental leave. Many employers won’t allow flexibility or shorter working hours, and childcare is expensive. So families are caught between working long hours reluctantly, or giving up work altogether.

Frances Fitzgerald - Office Mum post
Minister Fitzgerald (image used with permission from Start Strong)

Of course, the cost of greater flexibility is a factor that can’t be ignored. “There are huge economic parameters,” said Minister Frances Fitzgerald when she addressed the room, “But also enormous costs if we don’t do it.” She pointed out that with our high fertility rate, there are ‘sharp economic arguments’ for looking at family leave. “However there remain cultural challenges and it is without doubt women of a children-bearing  age are viewed differently than male colleagues by certain employers. The evidence may be anecdotal, but that doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate. This is an area for constant vigilance.”

She said she believes that the majority of fathers are “keen to play an active role in family life”, and that she’d like to see a second ECCE year implemented as soon as economic circumstances permit. She referred to her own early years as a working mother of three children under five, when she had the first ever jobshare in the Mater hospital, explaining why she has a personal interest in the subject.

“The most glaring flaw I see in our current  legislation is the lack of support for fathers around the birth and early days of their child’s life,” said Minster Fitzgerald, then later added “I favour an approach whereby the mother remains in control of the leave, but can decide to share some of it after the compulsory period with her partner.”

The seminar continued with guests-speakers like Gillian Harford, Head of HR Strategy and Planning AIB, talking about their approach to flexible working arrangements, and Carl O’Brien, Irish Times Chief reporter, who said that “Fathers get the worst deal of all.”

During the panel discussion, Professor Moss was asked what in his opinion would be the optimal solution for family leave. He suggested the following:

  • Six months leave that can be taken only by the mother
  • Six months leave that can be taken only by the father – with up to one month overlapping with the mother
  • Six months family leave – which can be used by either the father or the mother

He said that we need to enable fathers to become more involved, or we face a bleak future. Trinity Professor Eileen Drew agreed, emphasising that a “take it or lose it” policy for leave taken by fathers is the only way to make sure that it happens.

Some final words came from Minister Aodhán Ó’Riordáin, who pointed out that we talk about the great leave conditions available in Norway and Sweden, but that we can’t bring their legislation here without their gender equality based value system. He urged everyone to support Minister Fitzgerald in advancing the family leave bill.

The seminar ended with a thank you from Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland Orla O’Connor. “We need to invest in leave and it’s important that we don’t do it on the cheap,” she said, as she closed the presentation.

I left the room feeling instinctively (if unrealistically) optimistic – it was a fascinating seminar with excellent speakers, and the topic is one about which I feel strongly. I felt inspired by the mood in the room. All of the speakers and everyone in the audience were of one opinion; improved family leave is better for families.

But whether or not there will be any material change remains to be seen. The “economic parameters” mentioned by Minister Fitzgerald were reverberating in my ears as I left the building.

However, a conversation is taking place, and that’s a start. For the most part, parents are busy just trying to keep it all together – bringing up small children as best they can, managing one or two jobs, juggling crèche runs and homework and commuting and bills. There’s little time left for joining lobby groups or phoning radio stations or writing to TDs about family leave and workplace flexibility.

So we all just muddle through, then make it out the other side, and move on. Sometimes we come out happy. But sometimes we come out reluctantly unemployed because there was no other choice. Sometimes we come out with a great career, but anxiety over missed time with small children. Family leave improvements can go a long way towards fixing that – it’s not the case that every parent should work, or that every family should have one parent at home – the point is that we should have the choice to do what’s right for each of us, and for our families.

Greater employer flexibility and improved leave options will enable more parents to have that element of choice. So here’s hoping that it’s the start of an ongoing conversation.

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