For years, the best companies have been asking themselves: what can we do to help women return to work after maternity leave?
But with the news that here in Australia, in 2018, less than 5% of 2 parent families have a stay-at-home dad , you can’t help but ask: should the question be not what we can do for mums to help them return to work, but what we can do for dads to help them leave it?
Just why is having dads take paternity leave so important? Mostly because doing so provides them with empathy for women’s situation, a new lense on the privilege they may have been blind to, and a newfound motivation to do something about it.
Ask Ben Gilbert, for example, whose stint as Chief Parenting Officer made him realise within a week that parenting + domestic duties is actually the equivalent of 2 jobs . Or there’s Rory Brown, who after feeling a little left behind in his career during paternity leave conceded that his journey ‘ has grown my empathy and my understanding of what it means to be inclusive. ’
One can only assume that if more dads had these ahah moments, we’d see fast, sustained and definitive action to help stamp out the negative impact paternity leave has on women’s – or indeed anyone’s – career.
With that in mind, here are 5 things companies can do to encourage more dads to take up paternity leave:
Provide better, compulsory ‘Papa’ leave
Amongst Australia’s most prominent companies, there’s a competition to provide the best maternity (or primary carer) leave programs, with some companies providing entitlements that include up to 22 weeks’ pay. But the very same companies often offer little or no entitlements to fathers, meaning that women disproportionately take leave.
But what if there was much better options offered to fathers, and only to them?
In a bid to achieve gender equality, Sweden has adopted a model that does just that. Coined ‘Papa leave,’ 90 days of paternity leave in Sweden (albeit government-funded) is allocated exclusively to fathers in a use-ir-or-lose-it scenario. The result? 25% of all paternity leave is now paid to fathers. While this might not (yet) be the 50% nirvana, it’s
a 20% increase on what we’ve currently got in Australia, so would no doubt produce considerably more ‘ahah’ moments.
Change our workplace conversations
So many of our societal expectations are shaped by those around us, and workplaces are no different. A couple is having a baby? The mother is asked how long she’s taking off. The father? It’s barely mentioned.
It’s here that a shift in our conversations could start making all the difference. Instead of simply assuming that the mother will be the primary carer, why not ask the father about how much time he’s planning to take off. And if he isn’t planning to take any, why not? Could we, as his team members, manager or HR representative, do anything to make this more feasible for him? We’ll never know if we never ask.
Promote non-linear careers
At least some of the reason that paternity leave (or time off from work at all) is seen as disruptive to a career is because we still cling to the age-old notion of a linear career. That is, you start off as a junior individual contributor, and then slog your way up, with countless hours of overtime, to be a boss and then to get the top job.
And while this has been the way it’s always been, it certainly isn’t the way of the future. With the increase in freelancing, the rise of digital technology, and the fact that people change careers over 7 times within their lifetime, linear careers are becoming all the more rare.
So let’s start celebrating the people that are doing something different. For example, male CEOs who resign to spend time with their families, or those that shorten their work days to 6 hours for all of their staff.
Protect jobs while on leave
This one should be a given, but it clearly isn’t – so much so that still, as of a few weeks’ ago, 12% of women get made redundant on maternity leave and 65% said that their experience of maternity leave and return-to-work affected their mental health .
Who is making these dreadful decisions? Obviously people that have no experience of taking leave from work and needing and wanting to return to it.
Perhaps one of the (clearly legitimate) reasons men don’t take paternity leave is because they’re concerned they won’t have a job when they come back? If so, let’s fix this for everyone.
Make flexibility the norm, not the exception
It’s abundantly clear that everyone – not just mothers – wants and expects flexible working conditions. So clear, it seems, that employees leave companies that don’t offer flexible conditions , and people actually prefer flexibility over a pay-rise.
Yet despite this, Australian employers are still woefully behind when it comes to flexible work. Research shows that only 54% of Australian small businesses offer flexible working conditions and Australian employers are the least open to flexible working conditions of any country in the Asia-pacific region.
Which is a shame, because changes in flexible working could be just what dads need to take paternity leave. After all, if it was the norm to be out of the office, there would be no stigma associated with it, and perhaps people would just stop asking.
We most certainly haven’t achieved optimal maternity leave here in Australia – far from it. But who knows just how much better it could be, for everyone, if organisations focussed on dads as well.