Yesterday the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) released a report that shows just 4 percent of fathers in two parent families are stay at home dads, compared to 31 percent of mums.
It also shows a gap in hours spent doing housework and childcare, with stay at home mums clocking 74 hours of housework and childcare, compared to 47 hours for stay at home dads.
In response to this report, we could — as The Australian did – take it as further proof that men aren’t taking on a greater role because they don’t ‘care’ for it. (Pardon the terrible pun. All the credit for that one goes to the headline writers at the Oz). And then suggest the research “defuses the perception that family roles are changing at pace”.
Or we could take issue with the care and chores gap between men and women and criticize men for not doing their fair share. Headlines like, “Mr. Mums still happy to shirk the work” have tended in that direction.
Or we could (and this is my preferred option) talk about how a lack of public policy and employment practices to support dads in Australia is failing fathers and stifling the efforts of those who want to play a greater role at home.
It has long been said that the revolution for women at work won’t happen without a revolution for men at home. But neither will happen on its own.
Who does what isn’t a private matter down to individual negotiation between mums and dads. (Just as the pay gap isn’t down to individual negotiation between a woman and her employer.)
These ‘choices’ play out in the context of public policies (for example what kind of parental leave and flexible work is on offer to men) and workplace practices (how men’s take up of leave and flexible work is likely to be viewed by their employer and and what impact it will have on their career).
So what do we know about these issues here in Australia and how might that help us view this latest report from the AIFS in context?
Fathers in Australia experience some of the most unequal parental leave policies in the world. A 2015 State of Australian Fathers report from Save the Children found that the relatively limited length of paid leave for fathers compared to other OECD countries was a major obstacle to early bonding for fathers and their children.
Dads in Australia get just two weeks at the national minimum wage –that’s well below the OECD average of 10 weeks.
Australia’s parental leave policies give the majority of leave to mothers, thereby reinforcing assumptions about who should be the primary carer. Dads don’t get much of a look in. Once those patterns are set during maternity leave, as research has shown, they are hard to reverse.
That’s why the Work and Family Policy Roundtable, a network of 34 academics from 16 universities and research institutions with expertise on work and family policy, has recommended raising the payment level and extending the leave period to encourage more men to take up leave and more actively participate in fathering.
It’s a cliché to cite those Nordic countries that seem to get everything right, including great furniture and textile design. But consider this: in Australia, roughly 1 in 3 fathers make use of the paltry ‘Dad and Partner Pay’ option, compared to 9 and 10 fathers in Sweden and Norway, which have significantly longer periods of non-transferable leave for fathers at 80 and 100 percent of their earnings.
Then there fathers’ concerns that they will experience a ‘fatherhood penalty’ akin to the ‘motherhood penalty’ long experienced by women. There’s evidence to suggest they are right to be worried.
A 2016 study into flexibility at work from the business consulting firm Bain and Co and Chief Executive Women said 60 percent of men wanted flexible working hours, but there was a lack of senior support.
At the time of the launch of the report, Meredith Hellicar, one of the authors, told Radio National that there was still a cultural barrier for companies when it came to providing flexible work; flexible work is seen as something for women, but not for men. “Men are experiencing similar forms of discrimination and prejudice that women experienced 10-15 years ago,” she said.
These findings mirror prior research from the Australian Human Rights Commission, which found 27 percent of fathers and partners have reported experiencing discrimination related to parental leave and return to work, despite taking very short periods of leave. And men are twice as likely as women to have their request for flexibility rejected.
In a tale of two cities scenario, let’s look briefly at the UK, where ‘fatherhood policy’ has recently shot up the political agenda. Earlier this year, a Modern Families Index by Working Families and Bright Horizons found that twice the number of fathers compared to mothers believe that working flexibly will have a negative impact on their career and more than half of millennial fathers want to be demoted into less stressful jobs in order to be a better parent.
In response to these findings, the Parliament’s Women and Equalities select committee launched an inquiry entitled “Are fathers being failed in the workplace?”. Then Labour MP David Lammy, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fatherhood coordinated a letter from 50 MP’s to the Equalities Minister. (Yes, there’s a Parliamentary Inquiry into fathers and work and a Parliamentary Group devoted to dads.) The letter called for three months of non-transferable leave for the second parent to help ‘shift cultural attitudes’.
Lammy said it was ‘blindingly obvious’ that progress on gender equality in and out of work was closely linked to having shared parental leave in place. Too right Mr. Lammy!
Australia can certainly learn a lot from recent events in the UK. It’s a left hand/ right hand situation. Policies to promote greater equality for women in the workplace cannot be decoupled from policies that promote greater equality for men at home.
When we consider the possible responses to the AIFS report on stay at home dads, it’s simply not good enough to accuse fathers of being uninterested shirkers. We have to ask what more can be done to help level the playing field for fathers in this country.
We have a Male Champions of Change to engage male CEO’s in the transformation of workplaces to promote women’s equality. Do we need a Dad’s Champions of Change to spur changes on the home front?