Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Well done to JSE Ltd, the operator of Africa’s deepest capital market, for revamping its family leave policy, which is not only a victory for gender rights activists but good for business too.

In giving both parents, regardless of gender, four months of paid leave after the birth of a child, the company is one of a handful of SA companies that have joined Silicon Valley giants such as Netflix in abandoning family leave policies that make a distinction between mothers and fathers.

Such policies defaulted towards women as primary childcare givers,  perpetuating gender stereotypes and spawning generations of women who choose to remain childless for fear of missing out on workplace promotions.  Research has also found that in some sectors managers are less likely to hire women who are about to start a family, citing concerns that they could be out of action for months.  

The JSE’s policy will rightly help to stamp out the increasingly frowned-upon stereotypes about the role of women and men in relationships. In any case, companies should not have any part in deciding what women or men should be doing in the family context.  

However, for the policy to make any meaningful difference, it needs a critical mass of companies to join in with expanded parental leave policies because it helps no-one if a JSE employee gets time out but their spouse elsewhere is not treated as an equal childcare giver. These types of policies are already standard in the Scandinavian countries, such as Sweden, which became one of the first countries to give both parents time off more than four decades ago. This step has been credited with pushing more women to the front of the line when managers consider filling vacancies.      

According to a 2020 index by the World Economic Forum, Sweden is among the top five most equal countries in the world in terms of gender. SA has squeezed into the top 20 of the index, which measures the steps countries take to close the gap in a range of indicators such as economic participation, education, political empowerment and health.

At the start of the year, a new SA labour law came into practice, allowing fathers to take 10 consecutive days of paid leave to join mothers at home. Mothers already are entitled to four months of maternity leave and some companies pay up to 100% of their salary, with any shortfall topped up by the Unemployment Insurance Fund.

The new law was widely welcomed and labour federation Cosatu hailed it as an historic victory for workers. But it does not go far enough as it still allows companies to decide how their workers manage their family lives and still puts women in the same stereotypical role as primary caregivers for newborn babies.

It is true that most companies, hard-hit as they are by the Covid-19 pandemic, have to trawl the coffers for cash, and extending the benefit would cripple some of them. But such policies are an implicit acknowledgment by employers of the challenges facing working families, and in the fierce competition for top talent in a country where companies bemoan skills shortages, it would help in their recruitment and retention processes.

And over time, companies would boast about a loyal and a more diverse workforce, which research has shown leads to more profitable businesses. According to a survey of US businesses by audit and consultancy firm EY, more than 80% of employers that offered paid parental leave reported a positive effect on employee morale, while more than 70% reported an increase in employee productivity.   

If SA businesses and the government have run out of ideas for a gift to the women of this country during Women’s Month,  the JSE has just given them an expensive but worthy hint.  

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