Get new dads to stay at home with baby and we all win
Imagine you're interviewing a 30-year-old woman for a job. She got married a year ago and there's this question in your mind. Not only do you dare not ask it - the law prevents you from asking it. So instead you think, "Great CV. Terrific personality. But I think I'd better hire the male candidate instead."
This happens in workplaces everywhere. And it happens because our system of parental leave has been based on the premise that it is mothers, not fathers, who bring up children.
So imagine if it were different. Imagine if men were just as likely to take time off as women. In one swoop, there would be much greater equality at work, as well as in the home. Well, it may yet happen.
All the evidence shows that this would help society at large, too. If fathers take parental leave, their families are more likely to stay together. Even if the couple split up, the father is more likely to remain involved with his children. Since last year, fathers have been allowed to share much of the parental leave to which mothers are entitled. This in itself is progress; before, they were restricted to just two weeks off straight after the birth on less than the minimum wage.
But take-up has been low, because the scheme has been inflexible, poorly-paid and barely publicised. Most important, though, none of the leave, apart from the initial fortnight, has been specifically reserved for fathers.
New provisions here, to be brought into law next year, haven't yet been spelled out. But it looks as if fathers will be given an extra four weeks' paid leave on top of the two weeks' paternity leave. And they will be able to share the mother's entitlement much more flexibly.
For instance, both parents will be able to take time off together, which isn't allowed now.
And if the employer agrees, parents will be able to reduce their hours, rather than deserting work altogether, or take the leave in several short blocks, rather than one long one.
If fathers start asking for more time off once their babies are born, that inconvenience will be entirely offset by mothers returning to work more quickly.
In fact, businesses whose employees are mainly female will find these new proposals actually advantage them. And the new flexibility should help employers, too.
We heard complaints from employers when the Government introduced the right for parents of young children to request flexible working. Yet it has been accommodated with the minimum of hassle in the majority of cases. If anything, employers have found that staff who are allowed to work flexibly are more productive.
Next year's legislation will extend this right to all employees. Together with flexible parental leave, it should eventually change the working culture, so that fathers are no more embarrassed than mothers to ask for time off, or for different hours when they have family responsibilities.
We'll know change has finally come when we automatically ask expectant men, "So what are you going to do after baby is born?"