The European Parliament has debated maternity leave legislation for the last two years. Maternity leave in the EU countries currently varies between 14 and 28 weeks, with occasional provision for fathers. In neither case is this usually at full pay, which means that less well-off mothers are forced to leave their child at an early stage in order to return to work.
The Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality has argued for the extension of maternity leave to 20 weeks, fully paid, and for the introduction of a fortnight's fully paid paternity leave. They commissioned a background document on the social, non-quantifiable benefits of extending maternity leave in the 27 EU member states, and LSE Enterprise approached Dr Konstantina Davaki of LSE Health in July to write it. Along with papers from three other experts on both sides of the debate, MEPs used Dr Davaki's document to help them plan whether to vote for or against the amendments drafted by the Portuguese MEP, Ms Edite Estrela.
Dr Davaki reviewed literature and data on the benefits of maternity leave for children, mothers and society as a whole. She presented her report on 5 October in the European Parliament, followed by a session of questions and answers. On 20 October, the MEPs passed the amended Directive for Pregnant Workers by seven votes, extending maternity leave across the EU to 20 weeks, fully paid, and providing for a fortnight's paid leave for fathers.
Dr Davaki says: 'Gender has always been a focus of my research and for my PhD I analysed the gender impact of policies in Germany and Greece. I've also lived this on a practical level. As a mother of two, working here full time, I've found that UK policy is not particularly woman-friendly.'
'The discussion about extending maternity leave has stressed the cost aspect too much, obscuring less tangible benefits, such as health effects, as well as socio-economic benefits. Increasing fertility and reducing the risk of child poverty are two of the most important priorities of parental leave policy in the current financial climate. Legislating on a supra-national level enables us to focus on the most vulnerable population groups, protecting the poorest across Europe. It is a step towards giving children in the EU27 a better start in life.
'It's also a small step forward as far as gender equality in Europe is concerned, that has been fought for by many people for many years. Eventually we hope that the introduction of fully paid paternity leave will be instrumental in changing gender roles within the family, achieving work-life balance and mitigating the discrimination that women suffer in the labour market. We are hopeful that, after overcoming this first hurdle, the Directive will be endorsed by the Council and successfully implemented in all the EU member states. Contrary to what its opponents claim, there are ways to achieve this without harming small businesses. It all boils down to political will.'