October 25th 2008

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: CANBERRA OBSERVED: Kevin Rudd's desperate gamble

EDITORIAL: Can Australia weather the storm?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Defending Australia's independence

CHINA: Milk contamination scandal: tip of the iceberg

NEW ZEALAND: November 8 election: Helen Clark's last hurrah?

FAMILY: Will paid maternity leave help mothers?

VICTORIA: Behind Victoria's radical new abortion law

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Can the US adjust to changing world realities?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Barbarossa II / Our friends

EDUCATION: When the wrong answer is 'right'

SCHOOLS: Minister Gillard backs faulty ranking system

SRI LANKA: Plight of persecuted Tamils worsens

TAIWAN: Ball in Beijing's court for Taiwan's WHO entry

EUROPE: Germany backs Russia against Georgia, Ukraine

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Health and safety obsessions stifle childhood

BOOKS: BLUE PLANET IN GREEN SHACKLES: What is Endangered: Climate or Freedom? by Vaclav Klaus

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Will paid maternity leave help mothers?

by Bill Muehlenberg

News Weekly, October 25, 2008
Bill Muehlenberg asks whether paid maternity leave is merely a cynical means to help businesses get their female employees back to paid work as soon as possible.

There are two main questions to ask about any paid maternity leave scheme. First, who pays for it? And, second, how long should it extend for?

Perhaps most of the interest settles on the first question. All this will cost big bucks. How is it all going to be funded? There are two main options as to funding: the government (that is, the taxpayer), or the employer.

The recent Productivity Commission proposal to grant at least 18 weeks of paid maternity leave argues for a mix of taxpayer funding and employer contributions. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is open to the idea, and calls are being made for leave to extend up to six months in total.

The financial issue is vitally important, but perhaps even more important is the question about how long parents should have off from paid work. That question really is more important regarding the child than the parent. And a related question also needs to be asked: should this leave only be available to mothers in the paid workforce or to all mothers?

I actually wrote on this topic some years ago, but what I said then may be relevant to today's debate, so I present it again here.

Third way

Should we institute a scheme of paid maternity leave? I am going to argue neither for the affirmative, nor for the negative. Instead, I will seek to argue for a third way. The third way I propose is fairly straightforward: I believe that if we are to offer paid maternity leave, it should be available to all mothers, not just to those in the paid workforce.

I offer four reasons for this:

First, the principles of justice and equity demand that we take this approach. Why should we financially discriminate against mothers who choose to stay at home? Not only do babies cost a lot of money for all women, whether they do paid work or not, but the stay-at-home mother chooses to forgo income for the sake of the baby and its well-being. Thus, the woman in the paid workforce getting paid leave would be receiving a double set of financial benefits, while the stay-at-home mother would receive none.

Indeed, one must ask why single-breadwinner families with mothers who choose to stay at home should have to subsidise dual-income families with mothers in the paid workforce. It seems that government policy should be neutral in this regard. It should not be skewed towards offering financial incentives to mothers to rejoin the paid workforce, while at the same time penalising mothers who choose to stay at home.

We live in an age which puts a high premium on choice. However, in the maternity leave debate, we are denying many women genuine choice. Mothers should be free to choose whether they stay at home with their children or return to paid work. But if all the financial incentives are only going in one direction, then we can hardly talk about genuine choice.

The principles of equity and fairness demand that we treat all mothers equally. If governments are going to get into the business of financing motherhood (and I think a strong case can be made for doing that), then they ought to treat all mothers the same, and not favour one over the other.

Second, there is a growing body of research to suggest that most mothers favour this kind of choice. Numerous surveys and studies have found that many mothers do in fact prefer to stay at home with their young children, but economic necessity in effect drives these mothers into the paid workforce. It is simply too difficult these days to pay the bills and take care of the mortgage on one breadwinner's income. Thus economic conscription, rather than genuine freedom of choice, is driving many mothers into paid employment.

Many international studies could be mentioned here. British sociologist Dr Catherine Hakim has done a lot of work in this area. She has capably demonstrated that women should not be squeezed into a homogeneous, one-size-fits-all pattern.

Instead, she has found that when it comes to work-and-family issues, British women fall into three groups. One is primarily attached to paid work and a career, another is attached to family and child-rearing, while a third group is attached to family and child-rearing but wants the option of part-time employment.


Australian research suggests that the situation is similar here. A recent study by the International Social Science Survey shows that by far the largest group in Australia is the one attached to family and child-rearing. More than two-thirds of Australians believe that mothers of pre-schoolers should not be in the paid workforce.

In the study, 69 per cent of Australians said that being a full-time homemaker was the ideal option for mothers with children under six. And when asked what their personal choice was, 71 per cent of women said they preferred full-time mothering.

Melbourne University's Dr Mariah Evans and Dr Jonathan Kelley, who conducted the study, said: "This data shows that full-time home-making is the morally preferred option by most people and it is the one that most women give highest rating to as an option for themselves."

A recent survey by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that 83 per cent of women and 84 per cent of men felt that mothers should not work full-time, even when their youngest child is at school. Almost two-thirds of the respondents felt that families suffered if women work full-time.

Thus it is clear that for the majority of mothers with pre-school children, there is a decided preference for family and child-rearing. Therefore, any policy which we decide upon should take these very strong preferences into account.

Third, a good reason for making paid maternity leave available to all mothers is a very practical one, especially to business. Studies have shown that offering people real flexibility in the area of work and family makes for better, more productive employees.

When real flexibility is introduced into the workplace, employees become happier and better workers. Conversely, many studies have shown that people with family problems are people with workplace problems.

If employers want to keep their workers contented and productive, they need to do their bit to accommodate family needs.


Given that so many families today are facing crises because of work pressures, debt problems, and limited flexibility in the workplace, any company that can relieve some of these pressures should benefit, at least in the long-run.

Fourth, not only will business benefit from the offer of real choice to mothers, but so too will children and society as a whole. Once again, we know from a growing mountain of social science evidence that the ideal for very young children is to be able to spend time with their parents, especially mothers.

This in turn results in children who seem to do better later in life, by a whole range of indicators. Important socialisation skills and relational abilities seem to best be formed in the home at an early age.

In other words, too much formal day-care at too early an age seems to result, generally speaking, in some negative outcomes for children. The more time children can have at home with their mothers in the early stages, the better they seem to be for it. And well-adjusted children, for the most part, make for well-adjusted citizens.

Thus any policy which allows mothers to have some extra time child-rearing is in the best interests, not only of the child, and not only of the family, but of society as well.

What about the costs? How will such a scheme be paid for? Here I am sympathetic to the negative side. Business cannot pick up the whole tab. Small business especially would suffer greatly. Perhaps a mix of government and business support would be appropriate.

If we do pay all mothers, some current expenses would be abolished or lessened. The baby bonus could be replaced, for example. There would be less demand for child-care, and unemployment benefits might be lessened.

However, any costs incurred would be substantially offset by the benefits of such a scheme. We know that family breakdown costs Australia at least $3 billion annually. Part of the cause of family breakdown is work-related. For example, two parents up to their ears in work have little time for each other or for their children.

A universal maternity payment, by giving parents more options and flexibility, could reduce the incidence of family break-ups and thereby save society money - that is, on having to pick up the pieces of marriage and family breakdown. It's the old principle: prevention is better than cure.

But if governments want something enough, they will find a way. We have found funding for our efforts in East Timor and elsewhere, the war on terror, and our Commonwealth Games and Olympic athletes. If we are serious about helping young families, we can find the necessary funding here as well.

In conclusion, much of the discussion concerning paid maternity leave seems to centre on businesses getting their female employees back to paid work as soon as possible. Indeed, many proposed policies appear to be little more than bribes.

The implication of the proposals goes something like this: "Okay, we'll give you a few weeks, or a few months off, under the condition that you return to the workplace immediately thereafter."

But mothers should not be coerced with bribes. They need real choice. Any government policy which offers real choice will have the support not just of the majority of Australian mothers, but, according to the research, of most Australians.

- Bill Muehlenberg is a commentator on contemporary issues, and lectures in ethics and philosophy. His website CultureWatch is at: www.billmuehlenberg.com

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