Since 2010, women have had the option to transfer their maternity leave to the father from 26 weeks onwards and then return to work. The Coalition Government decided to take this idea further and announced that, from 2015, couples would be able to share leave from 18 weeks. This would allow couples (including same-sex couples and those who adopt) flexibility over care from an earlier stage in a baby's life. Mothers would still be able to take the full 52 weeks if they wanted to but equally parents might decide that the father should take some of the leave.
In line with this change, after 18 weeks the leave would be designated 'parental leave' that either parent might take, rather than 'maternity leave' that the mother must bestow upon the father. This emphasises that both parents are equally entitled to care for their child.
Organisations from the Fawcett Society to the TUC have come out against the plans on the basis that switching from maternity leave to parental leave may give women the impression that they have to return to work at that point. Maternity rights would be undermined.
In making this case, these organisations are actually impeding feminist goals. If mothers have lengthy leave periods, while fathers take only a couple of weeks off work when a child is born, then women will continue to be penalised in the labour market and locked into the role of primary carer. Only if mothers and fathers share more equally in the care of their children and in earning a living will it be possible to realise wider gender equality ambitions.
The Nordic countries realised this years ago and reserved a chunk of paid leave for fathers, on a use it or lose it basis. Along with affordable childcare, this has enabled men and women to engage in the world of work on more equal terms. While equality in domestic chores is still some way off, fathers are much more involved in their children's lives and female employment rates are higher. It's better for children too.