Every 4 years, when the U.S. has a presidential election, women’s issues are discussed…mainly by male politicians, commentators and pundits who ignorantly speak with great authority . This cycle was no exception.
We had a debate over which bathrooms transgender people should use. My facebook news feed had posts and comments from men who didn’t want trans women using the women’s bathroom for fear of sexual predators. My response was: “Guys stay out of it! We are fully capable of policing our own bathrooms.”
This goes to a larger societal issue – lingering paternalism where women’s issues are usurped by men. When this happens, women’s thoughts, perspectives, opinions and solutions on the issues that affect us are lost.
As women we need to change this. We need to reclaim our issues and solve them amongst ourselves.
This of course requires us to step forward and shush men. For years I’ve harbored a fantasy of being up on a Presidential debate stage with a bunch of men. When the inevitable question is asked about a women’s issue, I walk out from behind my podium and tell the men, who are all talking over each other, to “Shut up.” Then, using the death stare, I dare any of them to utter a single word. Now that I have the stage, I invite all of their wives up to join me and inform the Moderator that we will resolve the issue. After we decide how to move the issue forward, we will expect our male-dominated government to enact it. If they don’t, well then they will go to that special place called Hell on Earth for men who don’t support women.
This fantasy sustains me through the drama of our politics.
Many women were hoping this cycle all the issues we care about would have a louder voice. I had more hope when Ivanka Trump used her clout to put out a plan for maternity leave and child care tax credits. From the announcement, it sounded like a group of female political leaders developed and wrote the plan. If true, that’s a significant step forward.
However, the subject of women’s maternity leave and the discussion it merits, is being overshadowed by the need to fill the media with political drama. The plan drew immediate criticism: “More than any other problem with the plan…omitting half the population is its profoundest and most revelatory flaw.”
This is where I say “Hold on. What are they really saying?”
Are they saying that women can’t have maternity leave unless fathers get paternity leave too? Isn’t that men usurping another women’s issue?
Let’s take a minute and look at maternity leave from a purely woman’s perspective and understand what we are asking for.
Women give birth.
We need to time to physically recover and for our bodies to transition to a postpartum state. As birth mothers we also have a unique relationship to our babies. We were once one, and now we are two. That relationship deserves respect so both mother and baby emerge healthy. (Adopted children also deserve this consideration)
The U.S. is the only OECD country that doesn’t give mothers any paid maternity leave. Many women aren’t even covered by FLMA so their employers can still say, “Congratulations on the new baby. Are you coming into work tomorrow?”
Giving women 6 weeks to physically recover and adjust to motherhood meets the lowest bar of civilized consideration and respect for new mothers.
So before anyone chimes in with – “What about fathers?” Or, “Maternity leave without paternity leave is discrimination.” – can we first establish that the basis of maternity leave is due to the physical demands of giving birth and give women just this little morsel of respect?
After all, we all know that getting the bare minimum of 6 weeks of paid maternity leave for all U.S. women is an uphill battle. Adding in paternity leave men will kill any plan. So let’s achieve something for women’s health so we put women’s health issues more on par with men’s.
To get our maternity leave we have to overcome politicians and the male-dominated workplaces that offer up reasons why the U.S. “can’t afford” it. They say small businesses can’t afford or accommodate it. They make it sound like it will be too much of an inconvenience or have too great of a negative financial impact on a company.
However, this is where I pull out and wave the great big BS flag!
Sorry, guys. Let’s be honest.
The male-dominated workplace accommodates men’s illnesses and unexpected long absences all the time. I know this because I’ve dealt with them countless times!
Early in my career my workplace had to schedule a critical Red Team review meeting around the panel members’ individual prostrate surgeries. My workplace was very accommodating even though it impacted their largest and most important contract. (As the only woman on the team, I learned more about prostates than I cared to.)
Since then I received many phone calls telling me the man who supervised a project, won’t be back to work for a while (3 months) because he had a heart attack or needed by-pass surgery. I can’t even begin to count how many times I was called to tell me a man suddenly had to take off an unknown amount of time for his high blood, diabetes, stress related ailment, immediate surgery or rehab.
We dealt with all of these situations. And they are far more difficult to deal with than a 6 week maternity leave that you know about for months.
Oh, and let’s not forget that there were financial safety nets for all of the men, even in a small mom-and-pop company. The men and their families were taken care of, somehow, someway.
The reason the male-dominated workplace can deal with these situations is because men empathize with the ailment. They also understand the work the absent man did so they don’t panic about getting his work done. The absence gives someone else the opportunity to step up and fill-in. And if the replacement screws up, no worries. The man will straighten it out when he returns. There is no doubt his job will be waiting for him.
Let’s compare this to a woman who works in the office paying bills or collecting payment from customers who takes maternity leave. If she is part of a large office, her colleagues help fill in as she takes her unpaid leave. Yes, there may be some overtime and the office may fall a little behind if temporary help isn’t brought in. But the impact is minimal.
The more critical situation is in smaller businesses where the woman is the one and only accounts payable and receivable person. The man who owns the small business doesn’t know what she does or how she does it. He is completely dependent upon her and lost without her! While he can manage when she takes a week off for vacation, a 6 week absence gives him an absolute panic attack. And that is the real issue.
So when asked about maternity leave it is easier for him to express all his fears and say “No” than to figure out how to replace her for 6 weeks. If there’s no maternity leave, he never has to leave his comfort zone.
This is why we need to take charge of our own issues. This is why we sought our empowerment and equality – so we no longer have to wait for men to champion our issues.
How do we begin?
We can all take the small steps – just keep talking about the issue. Make it a topic that is always in the air. This is an effective way to build men’s comfort with the topic and lower their resistance. (If I can hear about prostates at work, men can hear about pregnancy.)
If your company doesn’t provide any paid maternity leave, ask “Why not?” Is there something that can be done with a PTO policy? Or a short term disability plan? Find out how your workplace deals with typical male conditions that require long recovery times. Raise the idea that there should be equitable treatment across the board for all health issues.
Keep in mind that solutions come from thinking outside the box and challenging the “we can’t do that” attitude. When it comes to business, our male-dominated workplaces are very good at overcoming the “we can’t do that” attitude and making things happen. We always come up with solutions to business problems because failure is not an option. When we apply the same “failure is not an option attitude” we will find solutions to women’s issues.
If you have a Congresswoman or female Senator, keep pressure on them. I’ve already contacted my Congresswoman Martha McSally. She was the first woman to fly in combat and the first woman to command a combat aviation squadron so she is experienced in breaking through barriers to advance women. Recently, she formed a Working Group for Women in the 21st Century Workforce. I intend to get involved so the group comes up with solutions and not just talk.
The issue can also be worked at the state level. Right now California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have paid maternity leave by making it part of a disability claim. Massachusetts guarantees 8 weeks unpaid maternity leave for all women regardless of the size of her employer. As more states implement maternity leave, it makes it easier to adopt a national policy that accommodates all women.
The bottom line is that as women we need to champion our own issues. Yes, there are a lot of challenges to making sure we don’t get lost in political or media circus. But we (our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers) have been here before and with a lot less clout and power. They were successful and we can be too.
Empowered Women Champion Their Issues
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