HERE in the UK, there is an unflattering word for a man who takes time off work to stay home with his new baby, and it is "wuss".
It was used two years ago by Guardian writer Simon Hoggart to describe the Labour leader Ed Miliband, who had chosen to take his two-week paternity leave. If Miliband were the CEO of a big company, wrote Hoggart, then "nothing – not even the need to mix formula and do his cuddling duty – would keep him from at least looking in for crucial meetings".
Contrast this with attitudes in Norway, where last year, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said he was "thrilled" when both his justice and family affairs ministers took their 10-weeks-at-full-pay "father quota" at the same time. "I miss them," he said. "But it can't be that men are more indispensable to the workplace – or to the government – than women."
Our own country's macho attitude is that parenting is something the serious, male worker shouldn't have time for. Business people talk about paternity leave as though it were a trivial luxury, rather than a progressive measure. When, last year, fathers were given an entitlement to six months' leave, three of them paid at statutory rate, there were grumblings from business leaders about "regulatory burdens".
Plans for further advancements announced in last week's Queen's Speech were denounced for creating "unnecessary red tape". Business leaders, according to the Daily Mail, have said the expanded leave would be a "nightmare" to administer. Presumably some people also thought, in their time, the right of women to vote or restrictions on child labour were a bureaucratic nightmare.
It often seems that we are being asked, during this recession, to put aside thoughts of what kind of world we would like to live in. The idea of gender equality should be shelved for a while – it costs too much. Or does it?
The current plans for legislation to allow greater parental sharing of care by 2015 are, as yet, fairly undefined – but a consultation last year proposed that mothers automatically have five months of paid maternity leave, along with six weeks' paid leave for their partners and a further seven months which the couple could divide up between them.
Small businesses complain breaking leave into smaller, less predictable chunks will be more disruptive and costly. But will it? Perhaps two people taking less time off from two different companies will be easier for each company. And surely, if couples are allowed to divide the same time out as would once have been taken by one employee, the burden can't be very much bigger?
The move will create one problem, but it's one we should welcome. When it comes to recruiting, employers will no longer be able to assume a female candidate is more likely than a male one to take extended time out with a baby. Instead, they will have the more complicated task of spotting the "wuss" from a line-up of both genders if they want to avoid employing a leave-taker.
Many will continue to argue that only women can do the job of parenting in the early years. We are the ones with wombs and breasts. And according to Telegraph writer James Delingpole, we also have "many of those virtues that traditionally accompany wombs, such as: gentleness; competence; endurance; an extremely high boredom threshold in the presence of small creatures incapable of doing anything save poo, wee, burp, feed, cry and sleep; multitasking; radiant loveliness bordering on the saintly".
The problem with this theory is a convincing body of research suggests what is important for a child is not their carer's gender, but the consistency of that carer's presence – and men can be as good at this, if not better, than women. Psychologist Oliver James once said that in a child's early years, "after Mummy, Daddy is better than Granny is better than Nanny is better than Minder is better than daycare". This is why parental sharing of care strikes a good balance in terms of creating a society that is both woman-friendly and child-friendly.
The biggest issue with the upcoming Families Bill is whether it will go far enough, and include a "use it or lose it" policy on male leave. The problem is not just providing men with the opportunity, but cracking the difficult nut of a culture that too easily brands them wusses.
A survey last year showed that 41% of male respondents would not take up the extended leave, partly because they were afraid of losing their jobs – as, in fact, many women are. Men have to feel comfortable with asking for leave and we need only look at the Nordic countries to see that this won't happen overnight. Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland have been experimenting with shared parental leave for some time and one of the key lessons from their experience is that to really encourage men to use their quotas, the leave has to be specifically allocated to them – and therefore be loseable – rather than transferrable to their partners.
In Norway, though paternity leave was available, only 3% took it before 1993, when a 10-week "use it or lose it" quota was created for men. Now 90% take more than 10 weeks.
Even in Scandinavia, this experiment is still in motion. This year, Norway topped a list of the best places in the world to be a mother. Yet there remains plenty of gender disparity in the country's boardrooms, as well as an ever-present pay gap and a working culture that's divided between a predominantly male private sector, and a mostly female public sector. The gains for feminism are not clear-cut.
What is different in the Nordic countries is the "wuss" culture of belittling hands-on daddies is disappearing. Peter Orn, architect of Sweden's so-called "papa rights" legislation, describes fatherhood as having become "part of the life poetry" of his country. "In the 1990s," he says, "feminism became part of mainstream politics here, and at the same time men began to see the chance not to be like their fathers."
Many men in the UK also feel this way. And increasingly, commentators such as Hoggart and Delingpole are beginning to seem anachronistic, as do those who look upon the paternity-leave revolution as "red tape".
It is as if they've missed out on some part of life's poetry.
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