The case for extending maternity leave to three months — Dharm Navaratnam

OCTOBER 12 — One of the proposals of Budget 2020 to raise the maternity leave duration to 3 months seems to have raised the ire of many people. Some are for it and some do not see the rationale behind it. Social media has been ablaze due in part to the statement made by local entrepreneur Christy Ng on a TV talk show with many women taking umbrage at her comments.

Ms Ng seems to feel that she is excited “to hire more women back to the workforce. I think it’s very good for the economy because women can now come back to the workforce, make money, and contribute to tax and help this nation become great again.”

Did she stop to think why women left the workforce in the first place??

She then goes on to say that the increase in maternity leave may not be such a good idea and likened it to a double-edged sword. While admitting there is some good to it, she claims there may be a negative impact. Her worry is that, being away from the workforce for three-months is a bit too long and being away from work may cause them to “go out of touch very quickly.” She also expressed concern that “this move would actually deter more employers to put women at high-ranking positions.”

Maternity leave is not just a women’s problem. There had to be a man involved in the fact that she is taking maternity leave. It is actually quite disheartening to see the number of men are opposed to the proposal for extending maternity leave.

When we look at other advanced nations, the maternity period seems to be pretty standard at 3 months. The UK offers 9 months of paid maternity leave at 90 per cent pay with the option of extending the leave for another 3 months with no pay. The beauty of the UK system is that the leave can be transferred between the parents as shared responsibility for the child.

There are pressing reasons for maternity leave. It cannot be denied that the first few months of a baby’s life is critical. The mother needs time to bond and care for the newborn. She needs the time to recuperate from childbirth and adjust to this new life that is so dependent on her. Aside from bonding there is also the consideration of breastfeeding the child for as long as possible. Then there is the socio-economic aspect. Not everyone, especially the lower income workers, can afford maids or day care centres. Not everyone has their parents around to help look after the baby. Not everyone wants their parents to look after the baby for that matter.

Let’s not forget about the likelihood of postpartum depression. A 2014 paper published in the Journal of Health, Politics, Policy and Law found that taking up to six months off work greatly reduces the likelihood of the mother suffering from postpartum depression.

There is data to support that maternity leave actually encourages productivity and employee loyalty. For example, Google offers paid maternity leave ranging from 4 to 5 months. This is especially notable since the US does not have a law requiring paid maternity leave. In his book, “Work Rules”, the former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, Lazlo Bock wrote that when Google expanded its paid maternity leave program, the company found that women who took the new maternity leave were “more productive and happier” when they came back to work. “The cost of having a mom out of the office for an extra couple of months was more than offset by the value of retaining her expertise and avoiding the cost of finding and training a new hire.”

So when we look at the benefits of maternity leave, surely extending it to 3 months is a good thing. Perhaps we should even consider paternity leave as well.

Maternity leave aside, Women are already subjected to inherent biases in the workplace, however hard we may try to deny it. From something as simple as the clothes they wear to their physical appearance, women are discriminated against. However subtle in may be, it is there. Let’s not kid ourselves.

A simple case in point – A female fresh graduate being interviewed is asked if she is about to get married or whether she plans to have children immediately. The answers to these questions are then considered as part of her suitability for employment. Is this not blatant discrimination? Especially when the men are not asked this same question?

Let’s be honest if not blunt. It gets worse. Our workforce is male centric and senior management in some companies often operate like a little boys club. Women who hold senior level positions are few and far between and often they are forced to behave like ‘one of the boys’ to gain acceptance. They are then labelled as brash, assertive and arrogant. The glass ceiling exists and women need to work that much harder to get recognised.

Many men fear capable women and will resort to making snide comments about how they should just stay at home, or how their place is in the kitchen or when the men really want to get nasty, they make reference to a woman’s alleged sexual frustration. And I won’t even start on the other untoward remarks or gestures that could be tantamount to sexual harassment.

These things happen even though we try to close our eyes and ears and pretend that they don’t.

While we seem fixated on race and religion, there is obviously another elephant in the room that needs to be tackled. Misogyny. It gets even worse when women choose to practise it and not work together to increase the betterment of their own gender.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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