In Theresa May’s final days as UK prime minister she’s been talking less about Brexit and more about reforming paid parental leave, particularly to make it easier for fathers to stay home with a new child.
May put the issue front and centre by launching a consultation looking at how the system can be improved to better promote shared care between men and women. She is pushing for her successor to continue with reform (although whether Boris Johnson cares for it at all remains to be seen), and she wants Dads to be given 12 weeks off, four of them paid at 90 per cent of their usual salary.
May’s pursuit is in stark contrast to Australia, where paid parental leave reform barely rated a mention during the 2019 federal election campaign, despite our woefully inadequate system.
Parents At Work CEO Emma Walsh says that Australia has one of the least generous paid parental leave schemes among OECD nations, a comment that was investigated by RMIT ABC Fact Check last week, finding it to be a fair call and showing just how much room for improvement Australia has.
Australia offers 18 weeks to primary carers at the minimum wage, while the average among OECD nations is 55 weeks – with the majority offering a replacement wage. Other countries enable and often encourage the leave to be ‘shared’, Australia instead offers two weeks to ‘secondary’ carers, below the 8.1 week average for OECD nations.
Writing in The Guardian, May says that fathers are being sent the “wrong message” when women are given significantly more leave than men. And while parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave in the UK – with 37 of them paid – uptake has still been extremely low for dads to take advantage of this, possibly due to financial reasons with analysis again finding that the arrangement financially favours dads over mums to return to work.
May’s pushing to offer men an initial four weeks of paid leave at 90 per cent of their salary and paid by their employer, along with another eight weeks offer close to 150 pounds a week – however this later payment would be means tested.
She writes that parenting has changed, “almost beyond recognition” in the 44 years since statutory maternity leave was introduced in the UK. She talks about setting out to establish the shared parental leave policy the UK has today back when she was shadow minister for women and equalities.
She also writes that experience around the world shows that when fathers are given the opportunity to be primary caregivers in the first year – even for a short period – that they are more likely toe involved in childcare later on
Less than one in three new fathers takes paternity leave in the UK, with research pointing to a statutory rate of pay. (at just short of 150 pounds a week) being the key inhibitor to taking it up.
That’s similar to Australia, where less than one in three are accessing even the two weeks of ‘Dad & Partner Pay’ on offer. Less than 5 per cent of dads in Australia access the paid parental leave as the primary carer.
There’s more debate to be had in the UK regarding paid parental leave and how fathers can be encouraged to better access it, but at least the conversation is happening.
Very little such talk is occurring at the political level in Australia, leaving it to employers to reshapes their policies and start their own such discussions.