Are parent-friendly policies unfair? A tricky question for feminists

Tracy Morison
Tracy Morison

By Tracy Morison

Parent- or family-friendly work policies are pronatalist, some have argued. Feminist scholar Alena Heitlinger, for example, has claimed:

Parental leaves, childcare services, flexible work arrangements, re-entry training programs, and social security and taxation policies that do not penalize women for motherhood have been promoted as measures of equal opportunities for women, but they can be also seen as having a pronatal potential, irrespective of the increase in the birth rate being an explicit objective.

In fact, Laura Carroll (author of The Baby Matrix) argues that, in general, policies favour parents.  She maintains that, given the steadily rising population rate and continued environmental degradation, government policies generally reward the wrong people: parents of large families. Instead, of giving tax relief or financial assistance to larger families, for instance, people should be rewarded for not reproducing or for having smaller families. By way of example, Carroll suggests parent carbon tax or providing adoptive parents with larger tax exemptions and parents with only one bio-kid a nominal exemption.

With regard to workplace policies specifically, Heitlinger, and other feminists, suggest that making work-life balance easier for parents—sometimes at the expense of ‘non-parents’—inadvertently encourages people to have children, or at least makes it easier. In short, these policies are pro-natalist.

The issue of course, as feminist studies have long highlighted is that the ideal worker is childfree, which historically has also meant male, and most family-friendly workplace policies emerged in response to women’s entry into the workplace, as Heitlinger points out above. Motherhood has often acted as a barrier to paid employment, particularly when women in partnerships with men are expected to fulfill the traditional caregiver role and were forced to choose between a career and parenthood.

The question then is whether altering or removing parent-friendly policies could mean re/marginalising women. Many women in heterosexual partnerships, in South Africa at any rate, still do the bulk caregiving. One could also question how would sole or same-gender parents could be affected?

Some say that we have moved beyond these kinds of gender politics. They argue that benefits and policies–like paid parental leave or flexi-time and telecommuting for parents–are fundamentally unfair, especially when others at work are required to pick up the slack. For example, in a forum discussion on The Childfree Life someone maintained that “You [as a childfree person] should not have to experience different treatment because you made a different choice” (Personal Communication, 2012). An article from BBC News quotes ‘non-parents’ responses to a survey about family-friendly policies as follows:

One manager told the [researchers]: “I do not have children and sometimes resent the emphasis put on people who do being the only ones who want more time at home. I have commitments and a life too, and I would like family-friendly policies to be home-friendly policies instead.”

A woman manager … said: “People who don’t have children resent the things they miss out on, such as maternity/paternity leave, and sick leave taken as a result of problems with children.”

Another manager said: “People who choose not to have families do so for good reasons and it is unfair to burden them with additional work so others can have additional benefits.”

Perhaps the answer is thinking more broadly about what ‘family’ means. A broader understanding of what counts as family, would mean that family-friendly policies could be extended to a range of people beyond parents only. This could potentially affect the gross disparity in parent leave in South Africa (the 4 months maternity leave for mothers versus the 2 weeks paternity leave for fathers).


10 thoughts on “Are parent-friendly policies unfair? A tricky question for feminists”

  1. Thought-provoking article! In terms of how “family” is defined, in SA it is imperative that we expand our thinking and look at the norm of family life – for example, extended families and burden of care for parents and other members of the family. Family is not just about the children and their needs, but extends to other members of the family. With AIDs impacting on our work-force, we need to be more open-minded about peoples’ responsibilities at home and cannot resent them their need for sickleave etc.

    As for pronatal aspects of these kinds of policies, I don’t think this is nearly enough reason for not having policies. And anyway, does she offer concrete research? I don’t really think there is a basis to believe that anyway. But let me know if I am wrong…and by how much.


  2. First, I object to the notion that employment policies are pro-parent. A cursory glance at any study of combining employment and parenting, particularly mothering, demonstrates that. I’m really bored of the claim that parents are somehow privileged in our society. As if maternity leave is a fun vacation women take on a whim. Second, the problem with this kind of argument is that it merely feeds into divide and rule strategy. Instead of campaigning for fairer work for everyone, including those without children, we’re targeting parents, mothers, who are already exploited by employers. Sure, let’s redefine the family but while we’re engaging in that intellectual debate parents and other caregivers need our support, not our derision.


    1. This comment is a great example of a Childfree or childless person’s irritation… although maternity leave may not be a “fun vacation”- it is, regardless, time away from work in which others have to take on your assigned duties- typically in addition to their own. CF/CL don’t have access to months of leave for whatever reason, fun or not, without jeopardizing our employment for job abandonment. I disagree that it is not “taken on a whim”. Pregnancy doesn’t happen by accident, you know- it is your ‘whim’. Secondly, it blows off the need for fair workplace policies at the expense of the CF/CL because you think we should just shut up and help support your decision to be a parent instead of being “derisive” for having a different opinion. I agree that parents have an extremely difficult job balancing home and professional life, but that is a choice and responsibility they choose; meanwhile, I am forced to work many of the worst shifts and an unfair share of holidays despite a better work attendance record, more seniority in the company, and arguably better productivity just because I don’t have a child to pick up/take care of/go to events for.


      1. First, pregnancies do sometimes happen by accident. Second, the definition of ‘whim’ should let you know that it shouldn’t be arbitrarily be used in place of ‘choice’ so no, pregnancy is not (always) a ‘whim’. Third, did you miss the part of my comment where I referred to divide and rule strategy, something your comment played right into? Instead of targeting women who use maternity leave, why not target employers for not hiring a temporary replacement? That you have been treated unfairly at work isn’t the result of parents, it’s the result of employers doing everything in their power to cut costs.


  3. Being in HR (and childfree at the moment) – this is an interesting point from both sides. Professionally, I ask the question – should it really be up to the organisation to compensate an individual for their home situation – because that is essentially what they are doing by allowing some people flexi-time privileges because they happen to have a family and not allowing the same privilege for their childfree employees? Personally, I watch on as my colleagues take time off to attend their kids’ school events and take them to the doctor as it is perfectly acceptable to do under the family responsibility leave policy, all the while thinking…heck, I would like to take time to see my pet… or prepare for a sporting event … or just take some personal time.

    I would like to see a workplace where the policies are brought into alignment so that every employee is afforded the same privilege regardless of their home situation. An idea would be to give each individual a certain amount of flexibility and leeway with the option to take it when they choose….no questions asked. An organisation I know of gives every employee 2 days of “religious leave” to take whenever they choose regardless of the day or religion or holiday (or lack thereof). Similarly, organisations should give employees a limit of “flexi days” to take at their discretion – if they have kids, it’s their responsibility to save those days for when it is needed. If they are child free, they can take it as they see fit.

    Again … if an organisation were to work towards evening the playing fields in terms of maternity leave, they could look into creating a sabbatical policy for those who are childfree and have no intention of taking maternity leave. This could then be open to men – who could choose to take it as paternity leave should they wish to do so. It might not need to be as long as your average maternity leave and there may be strict criteria built into it in terms of performance and time served, but I think, if managed correctly, it could go a long way towards evening out those playing fields – and in so doing help prevent the discrimination that women often get in their career success on the basis that they are of childbearing age and may need to go on maternity leave at some point. Employers are constantly needing to evolve in order to accommodate the needs of society. One of the things that has come up in recent generational studies is the need for work/life balance and the importance of keeping both families and childfree individuals / couples in mind when doing so.


  4. Mothers do take it on a whim, their whim….having kids is a choice, not mandatory. Family friendly policies are discriminatory, they discriminate against those without kids, because invaribaly they refer to ‘kids’ not other members of the family, parents, siblings etc. They should be termed ‘kid friendly’.
    Mothers aren’t exploited by employers, how exactly? They have more rights to job protection and policies against discrimination than anyone.

    There is no need for these policies any more. In terms of labour supply outstrips demand. These policies were introduced to stop the leeching of labour from the workforce when labour and skilled labour in particular was at a shortage.

    Who do you mean by ‘caregivers’, I don’t know any ‘caregivers’ other than parents who actively chose their role. They didn’t choose to have invalid or sick parents or family members…unlike parents who actively and knowingly chose their role.

    To my mind a fair system would be the allowing of a limited period of unpaid leave for all employees to be used as they see fit. Once that’s used up, you’re then on holiday or unauthorised absence.

    Mothers need to get over themselves and stop asking for additional benefits compared with other workers. They don’t look for equailty they look for preferential treatment which is not warranted…in any form. There’s no labour, or people shortage…in fact if anything those insisting on bringing even more people into the world are actively doing the existing population a disservice. Maybe a ‘green tax’ should be levied rather than throwing cash and additional time off work for those who are knowingly adding to the overpopulation and resource depletion problem.

    I agree we should stop being devicive, so will all the mothers out there stop asking for prime holidays off, additional time of work to see to the kids they chose to bear and let those other people also have a slice of that pie. There’s nothing special about producing offspring, even bacteria do it…they at least have an egalitarian approach and don’t expect non reproducing bacteria to pick up their slack.


  5. I am new to this website but I would like to make a contribution from a demographic perspective:

    1. The population is not growing (in the important sense of the word). It is barely increasing

    The line “given the steadily rising population rate” is false. Populations are growing in simple terms across much of the world, but the rate at which they grow (usually measured as “fertility” (that is, “”the average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime” by demographers) has been falling across the middle-income and rich world for years.

    2. SA’s fertility rate is plummeting and may not stop when the growth rate reaches zero

    South Africa’s demographics are quite unusual for a middle-income country, because HIV/Aids so skews our mortality rate (by eating away at the labour force, while leaving dependents – the elderly, and children – behind). Yet, the fertility rate in South Africa has been falling for years, from more than 6 (children per woman per lifetime) in 1960 to 2.46 in 2010. It is still falling at the same rate. To put this in perspective, 2.1 is the rate at which the population is not growing at all. Almost all of the major countries in Europe (except Britain and France) are at a fertility rate lower than this, which is creating a colossal crisis in healthcare, pensions and the fiscus generally.

    3. Why is a shrinking population not good? Wouldn’t there be more resources for everyone?

    A fertility rate lower than 2.1 is a problem because of an economic truth: there has never really been an economy that grew while its population shrank (see Japan on this). Some statisticians think that South Africa’s fertility rate, already the lowest large-country fertility rate in Africa, will quite soon dip below 2.1. When this happens, there will be slightly fewer children born every year than the year before. What this means is that an ever-smaller population of workers must fund, through tax, a population of retirees that is larger than it is. This means steadily-rising taxes, which will further depress the fertility rate (because of the expense of having children). Societies like Germany, South Korea, Russia, Italy and Japan who have entered what some call a demographic death spiral (e.g. Japan will lose 25% of its population by 2050).

    4. Why a shrinking population means a greying population

    When the fertility rate in a country dips below 2.1, it has never been known to go up again; and from that year, although the absolute number of people in the country will continue to rise for a while, we can usually predict the exact year at which the population will turn around and start to shrink (usually about one generation). This means that older people, who in South Africa are chiefly supported by the state and extended family, will make up a growing portion of the population. Older people play valuable roles in the family and in society, but they also tend not to work in the formal economy or generate tax revenue for the state after age 65. Every tax-paying South African will, in a shrinking population, therefore see a growing share of their tax Rands spent on the care of the elderly, and a falling share spent on everything else.

    5. Therefore, policies that encourage a healthy fertility rate in society radically benefit us all

    Keeping South Africa’s fertility rate positive (above 2.1) is not going to be easy. It may well require government action before long. However, for the moment, we are lucky to have this one demographic bright spot (positive fertility) against so many dark areas (the incredible human and also fiscal cost of the ravages of HIV/Aids on the labour force). If enough women decide on a life path other than childbirth, the tax base will be noticeably imperilled from quite early on (in SA, where the tax base is very small compared to the size of the population, this simply must not happen).

    6. A growing population doesn’t need to mean “ever-expanding use of scarce resources”

    I appreciate the common sense of the proposition “more people means more scarcity of water, land, food, space, etc.” However, it is actually easy for South Africans to make dramatic savings in many areas without discouraging childbirth. This country wastes extraordinary amounts of water (coal-fire power plants are one example) and waste (recycling rates are low). Our cities, as a legacy of Apartheid, are also very sprawling; we can stop building RDP homes and create dense, walkable suburbs. We can do more with less quite easily, and when the political will is there, it will happen.


  6. Hi, Sorry – I know it’s bad manners to post twice, but I just looked up the statistics I was quoting and I think this may help to put things more strongly:

    South Africa’s fertility rate in 2010: 2.46 (children per woman per lifetime).
    South Africa’s fertility rate in 2000: 2.87
    South Africa’s fertility rate in 1990: 3.66
    South Africa’s fertility rate in 1980: 4.79

    Change in 10 years (2010-2000): -14%
    Change in 10 years (2000-1990): -27%
    Change in 10 years (1990-1980): -23%

    Therefore, although I’m not a trained statistician in any way, and may be totally wrong in my prediction (and I would be grateful to anyone who pointed it out), I looks to me like SA’s fertility rate will hit 2.1 in about a decade, somewhere around 2020. By then, we will need all the child-friendly (not family-friendly) policies we can get. We will need to start encouraging childbirth by every lever the tax code and the public and private sector affords. To my knowledge, the only real way of doing this is to empower working women on the Nordic and French (but not German or Italian) model.

    Sorry for such a long and dense post! But perhaps it was a useful angle on Morison’s important article.


  7. Hmmm… I find this quite a difficult question… It seems unfair, because it is assuming that people who have children deserve and should have some sort of special treatment and those that choose not to are disadvantaged by not getting special leave for new furry children (I consider my kitties my children too) or for whatever personal reason they want. But, (and I could be wrong) didn’t the Women’s (Feminist) Movement fight for maternity leave for ‘mothers’? I like Bridget’s idea, it makes sense to me. But, what about people who fall pregnant by ‘accident’ and may not have accumulated enough leave? I don’t have an answer to this question. It’s tricky. It boggles my mind.

    My problem with HR parenting policies is that it perpetuates a heteronormative gender ideology. If you look at how much ‘maternity leave’ a woman is given versus how much ‘paternity leave’ a father is given, it is buying into this idea that parenting and caring for child/ren is still primarily a mother’s duty and responsibility. Also, while there are provisions for same-sex couples too, I think this is framed in such a way as to perpetuate the idea that heterosexuality is still the most ‘normal’ parenting structure. I think this needs to change, definitely.


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