The180·The 180

Does extended parental leave hurt or help women?

Queen's University professor Kathleen Lahey argues extended parental leave worsens gender inequality in the workforce.
USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Mother working on computer, baby daughter (6-11 months) on desk (Getty images)

In August, the Liberal Party pitched a plan to extend parental leave. Under that plan, parents will be allowed to receive benefits in smaller blocks of time over a period of up to 18 months. 

But Queen's University law professor Kathleen Lahey argues that's a bad idea, particularly because of what it will mean for women's equality in this country.

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length. 

On the face of it, this would seem like a progressive policy shift. Why is extending parental leave such a bad idea? 

I would say it is not completely a bad idea, but it is the wrong policy and it is addressing the wrong problem at the current time in Canada. 

So why is it the wrong policy? 

It is the wrong policy because it is yet another program that is going to reward families for having one parent - which will be predominately the mother - take time off of potentially paid work, and exercise of other political and social rights, to work on an unpaid basis in the family home. And since that is where the predominance of federal funding has gone in the last 15 years at least, it is time to change our focus and address the real problems that women and therefore their families and therefore their children actually face in Canada — which is that we need to take advantage of all the highly-skilled human capital that we have in the country and make sure we're also engaging in the promotion of gender equality at the same time. 

It sounds like what you're saying is that this policy change could actually negatively affect gender equality.

Well, it most definitely will. Already, Canada spends in excess of 23 billion dollars per year to essentially fund women's unpaid work in the home, sometimes even when there are no minor children in the home who need to be cared for. So it's essentially a throwback in fiscal terms to the 1950s, and that is not what women in Canada need. They need good, quality, affordable childcare to break the financial barriers that are preventing women's work from paying equally with men's. Women in Canada face increasing levels of fiscal and financial discrimination that are driving them further and further into the past that we had already emerged from in Canada. 

Currently, parental leave can be extended for 12 months. Explain how extending that to 18 months would hurt women's equality. 

It would specifically hurt women's equality because it has been demonstrated through very careful econometric research that once a women has left her paid job for any purpose for 14 or more months, she will never regain the same level of income, or chances of promotion, or job security, or pension security that she would have otherwise have realized. So by going beyond that period of time, in itself, women's labour force attachment is already going to be endangered... It's a kind of damage to women's labour force status that Canada as a country should really not contemplate causing. 

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.

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