My entire life changed when I got pregnant, and my husband’s hardly changed at all,” says 30-year-old Lilly Jensen (name changed to protect identity).
In a few months, Jensen went from being a successful managing editor at a local magazine on a promising career track to a stay-at-home mom.
Her pregnancy, and the subsequent maternity leave, completely derailed her career. With her baby at home, little support structure, unreliable help and a husband not legally allowed to take paternity leave, she had little choice. After two months back in the office, she quit.
“I wouldn’t have felt so helpless if Jack had been allowed to take leave,” she says. “I might have made a different decision if I’d had the support. I felt I had no other option.”
Maternity leave is often treated as a punishment in the workplace, says Manisha Maganbhai-Mooloo, a partner at Adams & Adams Attorneys, a South African law firm.
With no legal equivalent of maternity leave for new dads in South Africa – fathers may take three days of paid family responsibility leave around the birth of the baby, if it’s not used up on other events the leave was designed for – the bulk of the responsibility and burden of parenthood falls on the mother.
“Pregnancy is treated as a penalty and almost acts as a halt to promotional prospects,” says Maganbhai-Mooloo.
“Projects are halted and a women’s career is sent on a completely different trajectory.”
Anita Bosch, lead researcher at the Women in the Workplace Research Programme at the University of Johannesburg agrees, saying that pregnancy is treated as an anomaly. Keeping in mind that the workplace was developed with men as the model workers, maternity leave negatively impacts a woman’s career, says Bosch.
“You hear comments around the workplace about a ‘staffing problem’ when employees fall pregnant.”
The legal minimum for South African maternity leave is four months unpaid, and it only applies to women. There’s no paternity leave, no leave for adoption, or surrogacy.
“It’s left to companies to offer more generous policies to their employees,” says Maganbhai-Mooloo. And if companies don’t offer paid maternity leave, employees have to turn to the Unemployment Insurance Fund, a government-run organization, to pay them a monthly stipend. A year later, and Jensen is still waiting for her payout.
“I don’t know how single moms do it,” she says.
Maganbhai-Mooloo is frustrated by the inherently unfair maternity law in South Africa. Despite good labor laws, even by international standards, South Africa lags behind with legislature on maternity.
“The law needs to be amended to allow for paid paternity leave and paid maternity leave,” she says. “Not to mention surrogacy and adoption leave.”
However, in her opinion, the ideal should be shared parental leave that can be evenly divided between the two parents, to split the onus of parenthood and equally distribute the effect a baby has on both career paths. After a challenging birth, and a severe bout of post-partum depression, Maganbhai-Mooloo herself would have preferred her husband taking paternity leave soon after birth, with her maternity leave kicking in only after she’d dealt with the baby blues.
South Africa still has a long way to go. With mothers penalised for pregnancy, and fathers unable to step-up, paternity leave would help to equalize the playing ground. Unpaid maternity leave also places new mothers at a huge disadvantage. As a 2013 report by the Human Rights Watch discovered, unpaid maternity leave can lead to serious consequences for health, finances and career paths.
“I felt like a deadweight when I was pregnant,” says Jensen. “And I shouldn’t have to feel like that.”