The theme of International Women’s Day 2019 is #BalanceforBetter. In 2019, it is our collective obligation to strive to create a more gender-balanced world.
At Cunningham Swan, we are fortunate to work with many amazing women, both within the firm and as clients. On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the achievements of these individuals.
But International Women’s Day is not just about a one-day celebration. It is an acknowledgement of the challenges women continue to face in their pursuit of gender equality. Gender equality is a very real issue for the legal profession, and we must keep asking ourselves how we can achieve the principles encompassed in #BetterforBalance. Canadian women face pay inequity, the disproportionate burden of childcare, gender-based discrimination in hiring practices, sexual harassment, and numerous other biases and obstacles in the workplace.
In law firms across Canada, female identifying lawyers continue to be underrepresented at the partnership and senior executive level. While there may be a variety of reasons for this underrepresentation, one question to consider is the impact maternity leave has on a woman’s professional practice. Women who take maternity leave have the right to continue to earn credit for length of employment, length of service and seniority, but in actuality, this time away from practice may covertly stall their partnership track.
Paternity leave has the potential to increase women’s labour force participation, and therefore promote female representation at the partnership level. The ability of both mothers and fathers to take leave from work to care for their newborns is not a new concept across Canada. Back in 1990, the Parental Benefits Program was introduced allowing qualifying parents to take a leave of absence from work. This policy has since gone through many amendments, but in over 25 years since the policy has come into force, we haven’t achieved a gender balance in terms of who is taking leave.
Perhaps this is no surprise as we’ve learned time and time again, social change, especially around gender equality, typically requires a great deal of diligence and time.
The Government of Canada took notice of this imbalance and announced the launch of a new parental sharing benefit which comes into effect on March 17, 2019. This new benefit will provide an additional five weeks of Employment Insurance parental benefits to two-parent families when the parents agree to share parental benefits. Under the standard option, parental leave is limited to 35 weeks for one parent (in addition to 17 weeks of pregnancy leave). Under this new policy, if the second parent takes at least 5 weeks of leave, the total duration of parental leave is expanded to 40 weeks. Neither parent can access more than 35 weeks in total, meaning both parents will have to take time off work for the family as a whole to benefit from this expanded leave. Parents with children born or placed for adoption on or after March 17, 2019 will be eligible.
Parents may also opt to receive the extended 18-month duration of parental benefits, with a similar expansion of duration provided.
This new benefit will provide greater flexibility, particularly to new mothers, to return to the workplace sooner if they wish. Perhaps the “use-it-or-lose it” structure will be enough incentive to expedite the process of social change surrounding this gender imbalanced issue. Apart from the benefit to women and their professional goals, paternity leave is of benefit to the whole family. Paternity leave helps both parents to better manage the demands of employment and infant care, and it offers fathers an irreplaceable opportunity to bond with their newborn.
This is a step in the right direction by the Canadian Government to even the playing field for professional women. The more men are encouraged to take paternity leave, the more opportunities will open up for working mothers, and the more stereotypical gender roles will be challenged and overturned.
Gender balance is not just a women’s issue; it is a cause that we must all collectively embrace. Today is the day we must all reflect on the changes we can construct and the work to be done to get us there.