Northern Ireland Assembly passes parental leave bill

This one sort of went under the radar for me yesterday. In brief, parents of newborn children will enjoy shared rights to maternity, or paternity, leave and pay due to a new law passed by the assembly yesterday.

On the one hand, this is a really great, positive development. Especially since the bill also includes a wide extension of the right to request flexible working patterns.

On the other, I wonder if this will really address the problems facing working mothers in NI. In my experience, it is not the maternity/paternity leave that causes the issues, per se, more that the employment culture here tends to favour a more “traditional” model. Childcare costs are extremely high, as is the general cost of living. Couples with more than two children often find the costs so prohibitive that it makes more economic sense for one parent to stay at home (not to mention having someone on standby for when the children are sick, need to be taken to the health visitor, GP, dentist, parent teacher meetings, nativity plays etc). Generally speaking, this parent at home is still the mother. A few years ago, NI was reported as having the worst gender pay gap in the UK. It would hardly come as a surprise that when parents face the decision of who should go out to work, facing mounting bills, it is likely they will opt for the highest wage earner to continue working.

This is not an issue that I am completely detached from. I am, after all, a woman with two young children. Many of my friends are in the same boat as me. Out of all the many women I know, some educated to degree level, some not, working in fields as diverse as teaching, insolvency, creative industries, medicine, psychology, retail, hospitality etc. the vast majority have not returned to full time work following the birth of their first child. Many have become stay at home mums. To be clear, for some, this is a completely personal choice and these woman want to be at home with their children. That is absolutely a personal decision and it should be supported and respected as a valid choice. However, if it is not the choice for you, you may find yourself at something of a disadvantage. Many working mothers work at part time jobs, in which it is very difficult to get promoted and are often on short term contracts, so you can forget about things like paid maternity leave, job security or a decent pension. If you take a few years off, and you don’t happen to be a teacher on a career break, it is very hard to get back into decent full-time employment once your children have gone to school because, as is the case for everyone, jobs are fairly few and far between and competition for them is fierce and you have been removed from the labour market for a few years.

It is worth considering that while this bill being passed is a good first step towards greater gender equality in the workplace, that is all it is. A step.