By Guest Author 19/09/2018

Dr Frederique Vanholsbeeck

What’s more important the right to vote or paid parental leave?

I would argue that we need both to achieve equality and that New Zealand is miles behind in term of “properly” paid parental leave.

I came to New Zealand from Belgium in 2003 after choosing carefully a country where I would live and learn to speak English. I ruled out Australia and the US because they did not have provision for paid parental leave at the time. I had just finished my PhD in Physics and I was looking for a postdoctoral position. My partner is Belgian too and had done a postdoc in New Zealand so we had an opportunity for both of us to get a position in New Zealand.

In Belgium, we do not know much about New Zealand, that small island not far from Australia, but we know that it was the first country in the world to have universal suffrage in 1893. Belgium, in comparison, was one of the latest countries in Europe to have universal suffrage in 1948. Ironically, it is also the year the paid parental leave went from one month to 12 weeks. Belgium has had properly paid parental leave since 1922.

Here, I need to make a point that when in Belgium we say paid parental leave, we mean between 75 and 82 per cent of your actual pay, not an allowance that is in fact below the minimum wage. Belgium now offers 16 weeks paid maternity leave and four months parental leave for both parents per child to take before the child turns six. The parental leave is very flexible and can be taken as leave or part-time work either down to 80 per cent (up to 20 months) or 50 per cent (up to eight months). Most combinations of the options above are possible.

Dr Vanholsbeeck and family, supplied.

The situation around parental leave and parenting was the biggest cultural clash I felt after moving to New Zealand. The whole situation was really foreign to me. I suddenly realised that most people, including one of my PhD students, expected me to give up on my professional career for a few years now that I had decided to have kids, while for me having kids was taking a few months off and then going back to work as normal because there are affordable and practical childcare options. The second surprise was that nobody expected the father to change anything about his professional life though we have very similar jobs – both lecturers in physics.

Don’t get me wrong, I love New Zealand and I would not have stayed 15 years if this country had not plenty to offer. While we celebrate 125 years since women in New Zealand gained the right to vote, I think it is time to reflect on the choice we give them around parenthood. Being a mum at home should be a choice. Women should be able to afford to go back to work when they want to. I am personally a much better physicist that an early childhood educator, the main reason being that I chose to study to become the former not the later and I do believe my kids benefited a lot from attending daycare where all staff were fully trained.

Having kids is a responsibility for both the dad and the mum and they should decide together how they share that “unpaid” job. We should offer them affordable childcare and flexible, properly-paid parental leave. There should be no expectation that women only want to or should stay at home for a number of
years. Women like men can have it both, kids and a career. What our prime minister is doing is normal and has been normal for many women around the
world for a while. We need to change.

Dr Frederique Vanholsbeeck is a senior lecturer in physics at the University of Auckland. She loves her family, her life as a researcher and is a strong advocate for equity and inclusivity, not always in that order. She is originally from Belgium.