Paid Parental Leave Is About Creating Freedom to Define Roles
– Keynote Address by UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Anne Hathaway at the UN Official Commemoration of International Women’s Day
Thank you so much for those words. Wow.
President of the General Assembly, United Nations,
UN Deputy Secretary-General,
Executive Director, UN Women,
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen.
When I was a very young person, I began my career as an actress. Whenever my mother wasn’t free to drive me into Manhattan for auditions, I would take the train from suburban New Jersey and meet my father – who would have left his desk at the law office where he worked – and we would meet under the Upper Platform Arrival(s) and Departure(s) sign in Penn Station. We would then get on the subway together and when we surfaced, he would ask me, “Which way is north?” I wasn’t very good at finding north in the beginning, but I auditioned fair amount and so my Dad kept asking me, “Which way is north?” Over time, I got better at finding it.
I was struck by that memory yesterday while boarding the plane to come here – not just by how far my life has come since then, but by how meaningful that seemingly small lesson has been. When I was still a child, my father developed my sense of direction and now, as an adult, I trust my ability to navigate space. My father helped give me the confidence to guide myself through the world.
In late March, last year, 2016, I became a parent for the first time. I remember the indescribable – and as I understand it pretty universal – experience of holding my week-old son and feeling my priorities change on a cellular level. I remember I experienced a shift in consciousness that gave me the ability to maintain my love of career and also cherish something else, someone else, so much, much more. Like so many parents, I wondered how I was going to balance my work with my new role as a parent, and in that moment, I remember that the statistic for the US’s policy on maternity leave flashed in my mind.
American women are currently entitled to 12 weeks unpaid leave. American men are entitled to nothing. That information landed differently for me when one week after my son’s birth, I could barely walk. That information landed differently when I was getting to know a human who was completely dependent on my husband and I for everything, when I was dependent on my husband for most things, and when we were relearning everything we thought we knew about our family and our relationship. It landed differently.
Somehow, we and every American parent were expected to be “back to normal” in under three months. Without income? I remember thinking to myself, “If the practical reality of pregnancy is another mouth to feed in your home, and America is a country where most people are living paycheck to paycheck, how does 12 weeks unpaid leave economically work?
The truth is: for too many people, it doesn’t. One in four American women go back to work two weeks after giving birth because they can’t afford to take any more time off than that. That is 25 per cent of American women. Equally disturbing, women who can afford to take the full 12 weeks often don’t, because it will mean incurring a “motherhood penalty” – meaning they will be perceived as less dedicated to their job and will be passed over for promotions and other career advancement. In my own household, my mother had to choose between a career and raising three children – a choice that left her unpaid and underappreciated as a homemaker – because there just wasn’t support for both paths. The memory of being in the city with my Dad is a particularly meaningful one since he was the sole breadwinner in our house, and my brothers’ and my time with him was always limited by how much he had to work. And we were an incredibly privileged family – our hardships were the stuff of other family’s dreams.
The deeper into the issue of paid parental leave I go, the clearer I see the connection between persisting barriers to women’s full equality and empowerment, and the need to redefine and in some cases, destigmatize men’s role as caregivers. In other words…thank you. In other words, in order to liberate women, we need to liberate men.
The assumption and common practice that women and girls look after the home and the family is a stubborn and very real stereotype that not only discriminates against women, but limits men’s participation and connection within the family and society. These limitations have broad-ranging and significant effects for them and for the children. We know this. So why do we continue to undervalue fathers and overburden mothers?
Paid parental leave is not about taking days off work; it’s about creating the freedom to define roles, to choose how to invest time, and to establish new, positive cycles of behavior. Companies that have offered paid parental leave for employees have reported improved employee retention, reduced absenteeism and on-training costs, and boosted productivity and morale. Far from not being able to afford to have paid parental leave, it seems we can’t afford not to.