In Sweden, for example, new parents are entitled to more than a year of paid leave, then have the right to work an 80-percent schedule for full-time pay until a child is 8 years old. In the wake of the passage of a 2002 “use it or lose it” law requiring new fathers to take two months of leave or see those weeks deducted from a couple’s total time off, almost all men now take the minimal paternity leave.
Over the long term, however, mothers take almost four times as much time off from work as dads do, and they overwhelmingly work in low-paid, often part-time, public-sector jobs.
As a result, British sociologist Catherine Hakim has argued, female representation in top corporate posts is strikingly low. In 2012, women held just 22 percent of senior management positions in Sweden. The Swedish government has convened a commission to examine the stalling out of women’s progress.
Clearly, while leave and flexibility policies are good for children and for families’ quality of life generally, they haven’t been good for the cause of women’s workplace equality. In fact, as they are currently conceived and carried out, Robin Ely, an organizational-behavior expert at Harvard Business School, has argued, they have often had the perverse effect of reinforcing the status quo. That’s because, by focusing on women’s difficulties with “balance” and “conflicts” over motherhood, they have conveniently avoided the larger issues — which, in the United States, Ely argues, chiefly turn around the pervasive macho culture of overwork that plagues men and women alike.
Ely came to this conclusion after she was invited to investigate why so many women were dropping out of the pre-partner track at a global consulting firm. Studying the company’s alleged woman problem, Ely soon saw that it had an operations problem: Managers were overselling their teams’ potential for work, and nervous employees were working extreme hours and producing a far greater volume of work than was needed.
Everyone — male and female — complained of exhaustion and frustration with their work conditions. The 25-percent turnover rate was the same for men and women.
Yet the management refused to accept Ely’s analysis, insisting that its personnel problems concerned only women struggling to accommodate the demands of motherhood and career. The result: The men suffered in silence or left. And “the women took formal work-family accommodations that derailed their careers,” Ely says.
Focusing on women’s struggles with work-family balance is a “social defense,” Ely says: a way of fixating on a safe thought (women want to be with their children) and keeping at bay a much more threatening thought (the way we work now is pathological). It also precludes workplace changes that would most effectively enhance women’s advancement — notably, a rethinking of excessive hours and unrealistic productivity expectations that make living a balanced life impossible for everyone.
The British government appears to understand this. Denouncing the current system of one-year maternity leave and two-week paternity leave as “Edwardian” rules that “patronize women and marginalize men,” it introduced a new system of regulations last fall that intend, starting in 2015, to entitle mothers and fathers to fully share a year’s worth of leave after the birth of a child, dividing the time in whatever way they see fit. The point of the new rules, Employment Relations and Consumer Minister Jo Swinson said, optimistically, was thorough-going “culture change.”
Progress will be slow. Only 1,600 fathers took advantage of the last round of government reforms in fall 2011 that permitted men to take the last six months of their partner’s maternity leave, and Swinson said the government only expected 8 percent of couples to take advantage of the new gender-neutral leave possibilities. Let’s hope that William’s gesture of leaning into fatherhood provides greater inspiration.
Judith Warner, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is the author of “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.”