The Federal Government revised paternity leave for expectant fathers by extending it to 10 days. According to the notification so issued, male employees of the Federal Government serving on a regular basis can avail paternity leave with full pay and allowances. Though, the said reform was hailed by media commentators and human rights activists terming it as a step towards gender equality. However, the concerned Minister, Dr. Shireen Mazari, to much dismay, clarified that, currently, the paternal leave policy only applied to the employees of the National Commission on Status of Women and that its application to all departments of the Federal Government was still a work in progress. While the aforementioned notification lacks substance, it has sparked the much-needed debate about paternity leave and its place in the social structure of Pakistan.
Paternity and maternity leaves are the two components of parental leave. Parental leave has been available as a legal right in various countries for many years, in one form or another. In 2014, the International Labor Organization reviewed parental leave policies in 185 countries and territories and found that all countries except Papua New Guinea have laws mandating some form of parental leave. However, there is a huge discrepancy when one compares the countries which allow maternity leave to those which allow paternity leave. A 2013 study examined 186 countries and found out that 96% offered some compensation to mothers during maternity leave, but only 81 out of those 186 countries offered the same compensation to fathers on paternity leave. In my opinion, these statistics are inter alia an effect as well as a cause of gender discrimination.
Gender discrimination is a phenomenon that still plagues economic, social, domestic and other spheres of the society. In the domestic sphere, it is incorrectly assumed that since a woman is the one bearing the child, it is also her responsibility to rear one. Therefore, states are more responsive to provide paid/unpaid leaves to mothers while not extending the same benefits to fathers. While this phenomenon itself is a product of patriarchy, it has also contributed to strengthening the same. If the employer has the option to choose among a male or female employee and there is obligation of paid/unpaid maternity leave, other things being equal, a rational employer will choose a male employee. In case of male employee, the employer can avoid a number of costs: paid maternity leave, loss due to absence of woman from the work force and the risk that the woman will not join the workforce again and the employer will have to hire and train a new person. The neoclassical model will therefore predict gender discrimination in workforce and this prediction is visible if one analyzes the gender makeup of any workforce.
Additionally, the provision of maternity leave in few sectors and not others will lead to occupational sex segregation. This means that if one sector grants generous maternity leave, other things being equal, prospective mothers will prefer to work in that sector. Overtime, women will be concentrated in one sector and men in another. Among other things, this will eliminate diversity in occupations, a value we as society want to preserve and has innumerable benefits.
States should use parental leave policies to reduce gender inequality. If the state makes it mandatory for employers to grant paid paternity leave alongside paid maternity leave, the neoclassical model will predict that it will reduce gender discrimination in labour market. A rational employer while choosing between a male and female employee, will not take into account the cost of parental leave since it will remain same in both cases. There is a positive correlation between gender neutral parental leave and gender equality that substantiates the aforementioned neoclassical prediction. The Scandinavian countries were the first ones to actively push for gender neutral parental leave. As evidenced by different gender equality indexes, the same countries are at the top of these indexes. Consequently, a gender-neutral approach will effectively target occupational segregation which otherwise is a direct implication of the gender disparity in parental leave.
Alongside these market benefits, a gender neutral parental leave will also break stereotypes. In many societies, these are the women who play major role in the upbringing of children. Men don’t take much part in parental obligations. These factors strengthen the notion that women are naturally suited for rearing children. Therefore, women are the ones who need to choose between career and children and are expected to choose the later. Gender neutral parental leave policies will make a statement that it is not the woman who is solely responsible for parental obligations, but in fact, these obligations need to be equally shared by both man and woman. The equal participation by both mother and father will also lead to a healthier and balanced psychological growth of the children.
Increasing the number of days for a maternal leave will only reinforce stereotypical notions of gender and institute greater segregation in jobs. In view of an overarching goal of gender equality, the concerned Ministry of Pakistan should make parental leave gender neutral and make it mandatory across the board in public as well as private institutions.