EWL News

Maternity – A Man’s World?

[Brussels, 18 July 2013] Yesterday (17/07/2013), BBC News published an article on experiences related to maternity leave, and represented the perfect opportunity to, once again, address the issue. As the Lithuanian Presidency took over, the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) wants to draw attention to the European Parliament’s position adopted in October 2010 (over almost three years ago) on the amended Maternity Directive and the Council’s position in relation to the matter. A year after the “Two Years Overdue” Open Letter sent to the European Council, by the EWL and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), it is time to stand back and reflect: what is the problem with maternity?

Given today’s context, where in most, if not all, parts of the European Union employment is hit severely by the crisis, women face yet another challenge: their potential chances, whether perceived or real, of becoming a pregnant worker continue to be a barrier to their full and equal participation in the labour-market.

Since this is not the case for men, we have to wonder, what conclusion can be drawn by this? Maybe that women’s participation in the labour market implies that they have to abide by the rules that have been shaped, and continue to do so, by male norms? It is time to ask:

  • Why hasn’t the labour-market adapted to the reality that it is now a shared space, no longer an exclusive male domain?
  • Doesn’t the equal participation of women necessitate the establishment of the right to be protected from all forms of discrimination relating to pregnancy and child birth?

Maternity provisions are specific to women. The physicality of giving birth and the subsequent afterbirth and breastfeeding (if this is their choice) need to be recognised and supported by policy makers, labour market stakeholders and society as a whole. Women’s increasing participation in the labour market must not occult this reality. Any attempt to undermine women’s right to maternity provisions in situations of pregnancy, afterbirth and/or breastfeeding reinforces the already prevailing image that the structural dimensions of the labour market are entrenched in the male life-cycle, disregarding the fact that women as workers have a role to play in shaping labour market norms, which in turn must take into consideration the reality, aspirations and needs of both women and men.

Throwing the baby away with the bath water?

Proposals to improve maternity provisions for pregnant women, for women who have recently given birth or are breastfeeding have sparked broader debates on facilitating men’s share in care, a development that the EWL welcomes. However, the picture should not be blurred. Provisions for paternity and parental leave are absolutely essential to support the caring roles from birth onwards, but they are complementary measures and must not replace maternity provisions. These measures are crucial to ensure that men take their share of care from the beginning, but the reality is that men do not give birth. It is important that the distinction is made between child birth on the one hand, and the caring and rearing roles that start at birth on the other. If not we could end up by throwing the baby away with the bath water.

Too long overdue

The European Parliament adopted its position in the first reading on the proposed amendments to the Maternity Directive well over two years ago (October 2010). Since then, the Council (Member States) has not officially presented its position to enable a second reading. We know that the resistance is high and the likelihood of not reaching a comprise is also high which would mean that if no consensus is reached before the European elections of 2014, it could mean back to the drawing board. The European Parliament’s position contains a very comprehensive set of proposals that take into consideration the reality of today’s labour-market as well as provisions for a paternity leave clause. Many women on the labour-market today do not fulfil the requirements to avail of maternity leave provisions; in most countries women do not receive full pay during maternity leave which leaves lifelong scars well into retirement resulting in high gender, pension and poverty gaps. Women today, despite existing legislation continue to be discriminated on the basis of pregnancy and child birth, which is why more stringent measures are necessary to protect their rights.
If maternity rights do not become a well-established and protected reality, the labour market is going to continue being a man’s world, where women are treated systemically as second class employees.

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