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You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It With Maternity Leave

You cannot be on maternity leave for years and when returning to work, presume that you will get promotions and positions equal to your colleagues, who are usually men, Pille Gerhold, a researcher at the Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences of the University of Tartu, writes. She argues that Estonia's feminists are shooting their cause in the foot by supporting the country's generous maternity leave policies.

I had a paradoxical experience. Arguments reveal the truth, as wise people say. For me, the truth was revealed in the social media group that promotes feminism and gender equality in Estonia.

The paradox lay in the fact that the truth was not revealed in the issue debated there - maternity leave and nurseries versus stay at home mothers - instead, I gained an astounding and disturbing insight into Estonian feminism and gender equality.

What is the paradox? I found out that on the one hand, an Estonian feminist fights for the woman’s right to stay at home with her child for many years, both on paid and unpaid maternity leave. A right is a right, right? This right is fed by the belief, currently being circulated, that the child care institutions are severely damaging to the development of a small child.

At the same time, the Estonian feminist is well aware of the fact that Estonia has the largest pay gap in Europe and we have a very small number of women in leading positions. Coincidence? No, a paradox. As the English saying goes: you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

It goes against the very notion of equality to be on maternity leave for years, return to work and expect equal promotion and positions with colleagues, of whom the majority are usually men, who have contributed to the sector in these intervening years. I am not talking about odd jobs, but dedication and specialization in a specific field. The solution? According to my view and the gender equality report of the European Commission, a system of daycare for very small children should be developed.

Estonia has one of the longest maternity leaves in Europe, while countries like the Netherlands, France, Sweden and Norway have created professional childcare for children less than a year old, or even three months.

Send infants to daycare - cruel? Yes, according to Estonian feminists. They are not swayed by facts from studies conducted at Dutch universities, which found no differences in the cognitive and emotional development of children that were brought up at home and in daycare, nor in their affection for their parents and their IQ. However, there was one difference: the verbal skills of children brought up in daycare developed more quickly.

The most paradoxical paradox of all is the fact that ending paid maternity leave three months after giving birth in the Kingdom of the Netherlands was an initiative of Dutch feminists a couple of dozen years ago.

If you cannot be simultaneously a supporter of equality and feminism in Estonia, then I would prefer the former, because this will take us closer to the equal treatment of women.

This is a translation of a piece originally published in Estonian on


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