My sister and I had been discussing the gender gap in the workforce, and she was quoting the accepted company line, having worked in the human resources department of an oil and gas company. I felt betrayed. I knew she was only stating the reality., nevertheless, it still hurts that people should calmly accept this as being normal, just another consequence of being a woman.
I often hear stories of women struggling to balance the demands of work and family, especially once children arrive, and often they are eventually forced to become a stay-at-home mom. While I’m well aware that it’s their choice to make, one can’t help feeling that somehow the odds are stacked against them, for in most societies raising kids is believed to be solely the woman’s responsibility. And even when the woman decides to be a full-time working mother, she generally ends up doing most of the housework as well.
This really is the paradox, for if we aspire to create an equal society and strive for greater participation of women in the workforce, surely it’s equally important to advance male participation with the housework. Sure, gender equality is a subject very close to my heart on which I usually have to fight from the women’s side. So it is a little ironic that this time I have to take up the banner to make people aware of the need for paternity leave.
Parenthood is a shared responsibility, and yet, many in our society don’t quite see it as that. The man’s job seems done at the delivery room door. This seems to be the government’s view too. In Indonesia only women are entitled to maternity leave. While three months paid leave is a step up on the situation in the old days, it also ensures that the responsibility for child rearing is from the earliest days placed solely on the shoulders of the mother.
But, parenting is supposed to be a joint venture. An increasing number of countries around the world have started to acknowledge this and provide paid leave to both parents for the birth of their child, although the length and provisions of both maternity and paternity leaves vary from country to country. Nor is this just the case in western economies. Within ASEAN, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand have all enacted provisions for paternity leave.
The advantages are immense and studies in countries from as far apart as Scandinavia to Australia have shown that fathers taking paternity leaves tend to build early bonding with their children and are far more likely to continue their involvement with childcare activities once their period of leave is over. This is likely due to changes in social norms themselves. Up to the 1950s, it was rare indeed to see a father in the delivery room. Today not only are men far more likely to be present at the moment of childbirth, in some places it is encouraged.
This early bonding as a family unit may prove to beneficial to the children in the long-term. Moreover, the father’s demonstration of shared responsibility encourages the mother to return to work. if she is so inclined, knowing that she has the full support of her spouse. In fact, in some Scandinavian countries if a woman is the more highly qualified than her male partner, it is not unusual for the man to take on the role of stay-at-home father.
Some may find this concept odd, or even unnatural. There may even be those who believe that I have a specific agenda in shifting the “natural” role of woman as mother and primary caregiver. As an unmarried, childless female I guess I do leave myself open to attacks that I’m not qualified to speak on the subject. In the future, though, I may well experience this dilemma myself, and when I do, I would want to know that my partner and I have equally fair options to embrace parenthood and balance our careers simultaneously.
While I strongly believe that women have every right to decide whatever to have a career or to stay at home, a housewife who lacks economic independence cannot be said to be empowered. For women to be empowered, they must have economic independence. To improve women’s economic participation and empowerment we must help by supporting their specific needs. This is not something we can do on our own, however, because we also need men to help make things happen.
One area where we can certainly work together is on the issue of joint parental (i.e. maternity and paternity) leave, an idea that is still foreign in Indonesia. There needs to be understanding on both sides that the reason for this joint leave is to strengthen the bond of family, one in which the blessings and responsibilities of parenthood are equally shared.
Namira Puspandari is a full-time human rights worker who often finds it difficult to explain her work to people. It has now become her mission to make people aware of human rights and the fact that female razor blades are more expensive than those for males as a result of pink tax.