Today, the head of the Equality Commission suggested that employers are discriminating against women of child-bearing age as they are now entitled to up to a year’s maternity leave. She calls for more flexible working arrangements to be more widely available with partners able to take ‘maternity’ leave, so that neither partner’s career suffers. The Federation for Small Business thinks maternity leave is a bad idea, because it’s ‘bad for business’. And so, once more, we stir up the debate that leads to people arguing that that insist that women working is a ‘choice’ (both for individuals and for society); women should ‘choose’ between children and career; that describe maternity leave as a holiday; that treat children like luxuries that mothers use as excuses to skive off work; that ignore that most children have (at least) two parents (in the making, if not the keeping); that refuse to recognise that children are part of society and need to be cared for.
First off, let’s get rid of the idea that women ‘choose’ to work. Women, even mothers, have as much right to work as men. We do not sit around discussing how father’s ‘choose’ to work despite having children, or comment on how selfish or irresponsible they are for fertilising women and then not staying home with the baby. People need to work, women included. Furthermore, the vast majority of women do not have the luxury of ‘choosing’ to work. In the UK, most households, especially those with children, need two incomes to have an acceptable standard of living. Indeed, 83% of married (or coupled) fathers work, as do 68% of married (or coupled) mothers.* And many, many households are run by single parents who need to work to survive (although are less likely to be able to work due to lack of support).
In Scotland, women outnumber men by 7%. There are not enough men for every woman to be married off and happily supported. They need to work. There are more single, adult women (and for that matter men) in the Scottish population than there are married women (or men). Women of working age are more than twice as likely as men to live alone. Not every woman is coupled up with someone to support them. They need to work. Female single parents head 6% of households, compared to 1% of male single parents. Not all mothers have partners to support them, neither do all fathers. They need to work.
Furthermore, the labour market needs women workers. 50% of Scotland’s workforce is female. 72% of the (working age) female population in Scotland works, compared to 77% of men. Roughly 44% of the working female population have dependent children. The labour market would collapse if women stopped working; it would even collapse if only mothers stopped working. They are vital to the functioning of the economy, particularly in certain areas such as Public Administration, Education and Healthcare where over 70% of the workforce is female. With an unemployment rate of only 5%, there are not enough men to even replace a fraction of the female workforce.
We cannot talk about women working as a choice, because it is no more or less a choice than for men. We cannot talk about women ‘choosing’ between a career and a family, unless your baseline is that all women should work and choosing to have children is the luxury.
Now, it is certainly true that more and more women choose to never have children. 31.2% of Scottish women born between 1960 and 1963 have never had children (45 is taken by most scientists as the oldest women will have children so this is considered a completed fertility cycle). The age group born between 1970 and 1973 is heading towards 40%, although this may change as women have children later in life. Furthermore, Scotland’s total fertility rate is 1.6, which means that most women will only take one or two maternity leaves in their lifetime (and which also means that we are not replacing our population- a decline which has only recently been halted by immigration). Both of these things, I might add, make the idea of not employing women due to their potential fertility a bit redundant. But, should this mean that we should consider having children a luxury and a women’s luxury at that?
I don’t think so. Children are an important part of society. They are the future generation. Without children to grow into the next generation, we shall not be able to survive as a society. When we are retired, we need young people to pay taxes to pay for our pensions. We need young people to have jobs, so we can buy food, use services (such as hospitals and transport) and generally survive. Without the next generation, the human race will not only not survive, neither will capitalism! And we shall all have rather uncomfortable endings. Not having children is not a choice for society; we need them. And, as yet, they do not grow on trees.
Children are born to individuals, but they do not belong to them. They are part of society, just like you and me. They are entitled to care from birth and somebody has to have that responsibility. Why are we happy for babies to go to state nurseries (paid for by our taxes), but not to be brought up by their own mothers (or fathers), at a time in their life where they need specialist one to one care? Allowing women maternity leave is not giving women a holiday; it is a vital contribution to society. In a society where more and more women choose not to have children (as is their right), and most women cannot afford not to work, maternity leave is vital to ensuring that people can and do have children (also their right). Not employing women because you don’t want to pay maternity leave is incredibly short-sighted. It fails to recognise that an investment in children is an investment in your future employees and in your future customers. It fails to see that families where women don’t or cannot work do not have the money to buy the luxuries and services our economy relies on. It is also vital to ensuring that women are not disadvantaged by the fact they play such an important role in their contribution to society.