Deputy Editor Lydia Waller questions whether the improvement of paternity leave policies is eroding our gendered understandings of parenting and draws attention to those who get left behind

Deputy Editor
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Images by Juliane Liebermann

The dilemmas of a modern day woman: can she have it all? The career, the family, the home, the looks, the marriage? These are all questions that still appear in feminist narratives around the modern woman, as she aspires to shape her life and career, particularly when she is considering parenthood. However, as recent renovations in large corporations’ parental leave policies have shown, these questions are not only centred on the working woman anymore, as gender roles within the familial unit appear to be shifting, (if only in some sectors), due to the introduction of paid paternity leave.

At the beginning of November, Goldman Sachs introduced the longest paying parental leave policy of 20 weeks, irrespective of the parent’s gender, primary or secondary care status, biological, adoptive or surrogate parental role . The role of the parent’s caring conditions is definable by the employee, standing as a first for most large banks with paid parental leave policies. The only other large banking firm like Sachs to allow the definition of caregiver to be down to the employee, is Bank of America; they only offer 16 weeks paid leave, whereas Sachs now offers 20 weeks paid leave on these terms.

There is still an entrenched concept of ‘femininity’ and disempowering concepts of what it means to take maternity and paternity leave

Upon hearing these updates to large Wall Street banking corporation’s policies, one can only think this is a positive move in the right direction, for breaking down gendered understandings of parenting and the sacrifices needed to be made by working mothers – yet there appears to be a few things at the root of it all, that make the change slightly less celebratory.

Firstly, Sachs’ new parental leave policy was sparked due to a lawsuit against JPMorgan in May 2019, when fathers were denied the 16-week paid primary caregiver leave, due to the fact that they were men. JPMorgan had to pay out $5 million to settle the case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It was from this faux pas of fellow Wall Street firm, that Sachs have appeared to up their game when it comes to protecting the rights and stability of working parents. Yet, you can only feel a little bit saddened that it appeared to have taken a $5 million lawsuit against a large banking corporation, to kick start the action of companies shifting the gendered idea of parental leave, away from solely mothers.

Not only this, but the symbolism of Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs is arguably either brilliant, as a large name sets a standard for other similar banking firms and therefore business policies, or it is discouraging, as only large and wealthy Wall Street corporations can afford to pay-out such large and comfortable paternity schemes. The length and pay of such a parental leave policy would not be viable for smaller firms and public sectors. Despite such large corporations making statements about gender roles and advertising domestic duties as more fluid concept, the working parents in public sector jobs will not be protected by such privileged schemes and therefore potentially perpetuate class divisions within childcare.

This is not to say that the policy making is not a step in the right direction, in regards to the discourse around what the modern working and domestic family might look like- the modern family becoming more modern is undoubtedly a good thing. However, there is still an entrenched concept of ‘femininity’ and disempowering concepts of what it means to take maternity and paternity leave. As a study in The Independent has stated, less than one in three fathers take paternity leave, even when it is offered to them. The percentage of men taking paternity leave has fallen consistently in the past four years, whereas the percentage of women taking maternity leave has risen steadily by 5% in the past four years. This shows a consistent progression in the understanding of parental care being a female obligation and less attractive to the working man and the security of his career. Jon Taylor of EMW has stated that parental leave is still ‘an unaffordable luxury’ for most people, particularly in the gig economy and self-employed, as they face a pay-cut from taking time off work- it is these areas of employment that are not protected by woke schemes such as Sachs’.

The ubiquity of parental-leave policies and autonomy is merely taking its first steps

There still appears to be a perception that maternity is seen as a sacrifice, a knock to the mother’s career for the sake of parenting. This concept of weakening one’s career through asking for leave is something that appears to still off-put men, even those who are offered schemes such as these, to ask for leave and take up a primary-care giving role. Taylor also stated in The Independent that ‘the gap between men and women taking time off for the birth of a child is actually widening.’

So, despite the headlines of the Goldman Sachs and other large Wall Street corporations implementing seemingly woke parental leave policies, there is still a greater majority of unsupported working mothers due to the still gender-entrenched understanding of primary parenting, and fathers who are not even offered such schemes. The ubiquity of parental-leave policies and autonomy is merely taking its first steps.