Maternity and motherhood often still stand between women and achievement. According to a survey by the European Human Rights Commission, 44% of employers believe women should work for an organisation for at least a year before deciding to have children, and a third of employers believe new mothers are ‘less interested in career progression’. But when we step back and look around us, we see that this is just not true.
A shining example of a woman successfully managing motherhood and a career is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. The PM took six weeks’ maternity leave whilst in office in 2018 – New Zealand, of course, did not fall apart. Whilst on maternity leave, the PM even continued to read cabinet papers and consult on significant issues. The PM pointed out upon her return ‘I am not the first woman to multi-task. I am not the first woman to work and have a baby – there are many women who have done this before’. Far from being less ambitious, the PM was sworn in for a second term in November 2020 after a landslide victory.
Ms Ardern was the second world leader to give birth in office. The first was Benazir Bhutto – the former and late Prime Minister of Pakistan. Ms Bhutto had to take a different approach, and when she had her daughter in 1990 she had kept her pregnancy secret even from her colleagues and returned to work the day after giving birth (something no woman should have to do). One of her cabinet ministers said: ‘suddenly we learn that she has not only gone and delivered democracy, she’s also delivered a baby’. The PM said ‘it was a defining moment, especially for young women, proving that a woman could work and have a baby in the highest and most challenging leadership positions’. I think it certainly was.
It should be of no controversy then that the UK government is going to update the law so that the Attorney General can take six months’ maternity leave. The only thing which has surprised me about this announcement is that there was no provision in place for this before. It would be naïve to think that any government office is the sum of one person, so if we cannot afford for an individual to take time off to have a baby then that is a failing of a system. I hope that this high-profile change will show all UK employers that mothers can be, and want to be, in positions of power. There is still much work to be done to reverse stereotyping mothers in this country so we do not fall behind the rest of the world, but this is a start.
The Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill will allow cabinet ministers to receive up to six months' leave on full pay. At the moment, legislation from the 1970s means the prime minister does not normally have the flexibility to pay a cabinet minister maternity leave alongside paying a salary to their temporary replacement.