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Has back-to-work Dati set a bad example for women?


Rachida Dati who returned to work just five days after giving birth.

Rachida Dati who returned to work just five days after giving birth.

Rachida Dati who returned to work just five days after giving birth.

Smiling broadly, dressed to the nines and looking for all the world as if she had never been pregnant, 43-year-old French Justice Minister Rachida Dati returned to her high-profile job just five days after giving birth to baby Zohra.

She was attending the first Council of Ministers meeting with her cabinet colleagues at the Elysee Palace, having checked out of her maternity clinic just hours beforehand.

Under French law, new mothers can take 10 weeks' leave after the birth of a child along with six weeks before the delivery.

However, Ms Dati was "following her dossiers" from her bed just hours after the birth and said she fully intended to be back at work within a week. "Giving birth is not a disease," she said.

Reportedly concerned that a significant absence might result in her losing out in a cabinet reshuffle, Ms Dati no doubt wanted to send a strong signal to her male counterparts (and President Sarkozy) that she was not going to let the trifling matter of giving birth hamper her chances.

But did it also send a signal to ordinary women that taking full entitlements of several months' leave to look after your baby is a namby-pamby way of operating?

Women in high-powered jobs often fear that they will no longer be taken seriously if they take time out or, indeed, if they are self-employed they often don't even have the luxury of considering it.

But is maternity leave just a blip in a career, or a time to rest and celebrate the biggest event in a woman's life?

If women in public life cannot be seen to be taking time off, then what about everyone else? Has Dati's decision undermined the decades of effort by women to have maternity leave taken seriously by Government and employers?

Senator Ivana Bacik, herself a mum of two little girls (Cyan, 3, and Louie, 1) says she believes it is more important to have legislation which provides a right to return to work and is delighted that maternity leave has been extended to six months in Ireland.

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But she concedes that different women have different needs.

"There will always be occupations or professions where women may believe they don't need to take leave. Some won't be physically able to return early but it's important to have the choice.

"I was lucky myself because I was able to ease in with part- time work.

'I was answering emails within a few weeks, but it was much more difficult to physically attend meetings and my Seanad colleagues understood I wasn't going to be there for votes for a while.

"People are very understanding when you've just had a baby, but you have to be disciplined, particularly if you're self-employed.

"You're relying on goodwill and you need to have the confidence to take your leave".

Bacik says that she would also like to see a system where paternity leave was a right.

"It should be mandatory and paid, which is a big call in this economic climate, but they have introduced two weeks' paternity leave in the UK which is a good start.

"I think it was fantastic to see Tony Blair taking time off after baby Leo was born. It was an important symbolic gesture and challenged the accepted wisdom".

Another high-powered mother who doesn't believe in maternity leave is former US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who famously returned to work just three days after giving birth to her fifth child, Trig.

The baby arrived two weeks early and Palin flew home to Alaska from a meeting in Texas after her waters broke.

She said she wouldn't be taking maternity leave but would bring Trig with her to work.

Her spokesperson later clarified that the governor would be taking time off for medical appointments, physical therapy and whatever Trig needed.

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