Congratulations are in order at chez Forbes. Yesterday, cabinet secretary for finance and the economy Kate Forbes announced she is pregnant with her first child, due this summer. In the statement from the SNP, Forbes said that she will be taking maternity leave, becoming the first cabinet secretary and second woman in the Scottish government to do so. Aileen Campbell, former minister for children and young people, set the precedent, becoming the first serving minister to take maternity leave in December 2014.
In her statement, Forbes acknowledged the pressures thousands of women across the country face to “balance both work and personal responsibilities”. A point echoed by first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who expressed delight at the news and Forbes’ decision to take leave, but commented that a woman’s “pregnancy should never be a barrier to someone’s career, especially women in senior leadership roles”, and while that’s a sentiment one wholeheartedly agrees with, how true does it ring in reality?
Forbes added in her statement that “politics, like many workplaces, is often not renowned for being a supportive environment for parents” and that to have a career and a family, one needs “the right support in place”. Support which also comes from paid maternity and paternity leave.
According to the Scottish government’s website, ministers are deemed to be “holders of public office” and therefore are not employees of either the Scottish government or the parliament, the latter of which is responsible for paying ministers and MSPs. As such, ministers and MSPs do not automatically qualify for statutory or contractual maternity leave, which for ministers is at the discretion of the first minister. Furthermore, that sentiment applies to maternity leave alone, making no mention of paternity leave.
According to the UK government, statutory maternity pay (SMP) is paid for up to 39 weeks, and a mother is entitled to 90% of her average weekly gross earnings for the first six weeks. After that, she will either get £151.97 or 90% of average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the next 33. According to the latest OECD figures from 2016, that’s significantly higher than the OECD average, and strikingly so when compared to countries like the United States, where parental leave is neither mandated nor protected by federal law.
What about paternity leave, a decision parents around the world are increasingly gravitating towards? Paternity leave became legislated for in 2003and protects the right of expectant fathers to take either one or two weeks of paternity paid leave, which is similarly paid as maternity leave and must end within 56 days of the baby’s birth. However, expectant parents have also the option of taking shared parental leave and pay, where partners can share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay between the two. Introduced in 2013 by the Conservative-LibDem coalition government, it was spearheaded by the then minister for employment relations, Jo Swinson, and is largely considered to be a success.
The cabinet secretary’s statement brings joyful news and reminds us that parental leave is a right hard won and worthy to be enjoyed in full.