Today we celebrate Women’s Day in South Africa, commemorating a national march of women in 1956 to petition against legislation that required black South Africans to carry a special identification document. South Africa has moved far since 1956 in terms of women’s rights: we now have a constitution that instils gender equality, and in politics we see more women in leadership positions. Although South Africa has not yet had a female president, Nkosazama Ndlamini-Zuma is chairperson of the African Union Commission and three women, Helen Zille, Lindiwe Mazibuko and Patricia de Lille lead the largest opposition party.
Yet gender inequality persists, not only in South Africa but across the globe. Sheryl Sandberg, who served as Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, recently authored a popular book on women in the workplace, Lean In. It won’t be the best book you’ve read, but it suggests some interesting reasons why women still only fill a small proportion of the top leadership roles in business. (The main thesis summarised: She asks women to not step back when making decisions about their career with the expectation that they will have to scale down when children arrives. Go for that leadership position you would love, and then deal with the demands of pregnancy and parental care when it arrives.) On the whole, though, she fails to address the most obvious concern from the demand-side: that shareholders care only about profits, and if child-birth means lower levels of efficiency for women than for men, then appointing men, ceteris paribus, may be a rational decision.
In academia, however, where the demands of profitability are less pervasive, one would expect that the gender gap has closed. Not so. As a recent article in Slate argues: for men, having children is a career advantage, while for women a child can be a ‘career killer’.
The pressure cooker years as an assistant professor leading up to tenure usually number four to seven years. At the end of this trial, the university decides “up or out”—tenure for life or dismissal. It is well established that women are less likely to be awarded tenure than men. There is a baby penalty, especially strong in the sciences—but women without children also receive tenure at a lower rate than men. There are other factors than children that cause women to fail at this critical juncture. The women who do make it often do so alone. Women professors have higher divorce rates, lower marriage rates, and fewer children than male professors. Among tenured faculty, 70 percent of men are married with children compared with 44 percent of women.
What can be done to combat this?
Sweden offers one alternative. Swedish parents are entitled to 480 days of parental leave for each child, but more importantly, they are encouraged to split these days equally between both parents. If this is done, there is an additional ‘equality’ bonus of extra leave. This equality is not forced, though, as one parent can take up to 420 of the 480 days. And it’s fully funded by the State: 420 of these days are paid at 80% of your normal wage.
The important tenet here is not the length of time, but the fact that it is shared equally between husband and wife. There is no reason to discriminate in appointments for reasons of profitability or efficiency if both men and women pay an equal ‘cost’ at childbirth. Three Swedish researchers in the Journal of Public Economics (Jan 2013) exploit a Swedish policy change in 1995 to show that one month extra parental leave for fathers have no effect on their lifelong earnings, but have a positive (but small) effect for mothers, suggesting that women gain from greater equality with men. I would go so far as to say that an equal share of parental leave should be legislated; that men and women’s share of leave are not allowed to differ. This is because men (yes, even Swedish men!) more easily shirk their parental leave duties, as recent research shows. Only when men and women are forced to share equally in the duties of parental leave will businesses have no reason to discriminate against women.
We associate gender inequality with uplifting women. But perhaps our focus is on the wrong gender. In South Africa, most companies offer three months of paid parental leave for women, but only three days for men. If we are to combat gender inequality, on this Women’s Day, women country-wide should be marching for men’s rights to more paternity leave.