With little fanfare, a rather special event took place in Canberra last week on the subject of fatherhood. Liana Leach at The ANU, and Amanda Cooklin at La Trobe University, quietly co-hosted a one-day forum on the importance of the role of fathers in caring for children.
For the first time, and through the foresight and efforts of these two researchers, the Forum brought together academics, business leaders, government policymakers, and interested members of the public to talk about dads.
The fact that this Forum, held in 2018, is the first of its kind in Australia says so much about the outdated notions we still harbour on the role of dads. Even as other societies are shifting their views on fatherhood, across Australia the ‘male breadwinner’ concept remains dominant.
About 90% of our dads are employed, and 92% of those work full-time. Dads actually tend to work even longer hours once they have kids. Only 5% of dads work part-time, and 14% work from home.
Those working part-time often are underemployed and want more hours anyway. The tiny portion of dads bucking this trend, working flexibly and part-time, or staying at home in order to primarily care for kids, are still treated as a cute novelty, not a new way of doing things.
We’re reinforcing to dads in this country that the best way for them to be a parent is to go work and earn a living. It is OK to leave the kids with mums, grandparents and professional carers… just not dads. And dads believe these tropes.
Even if more dads these days agree fathers have a role to play in caring, actions speak louder than words. Longitudinal studies show that 25% of dads work weekends, and 56% miss family events.
We know now how damaging this is for dads’ mental health and wellbeing. Some industries fare better, but the rigidity of shift work is also causing enormous disruption and heartache for dads in traditionally blue-collar roles.
Professor Lyndall Strazdins, researcher at ANU’s School of Population Health, pointed out that we’ve been so focused on finding better ways to encourage and support mums back into the workforce, we’ve done very little to help dads escape long-hours and stringent work schedules, do more caring, and reconnect with their families.
About 240,000 dads are having kids each year. But our parental leave policies and practices reflect gendered notions of work and caring. We give months to mums and days to dads. We focus more on the first 12 months of a baby’s life than all the subsequent years where so much child development occurs.
Dads are shackled with the ‘secondary care giver’ label. The Federal Government’s ‘Dad and Partner Pay’ is two weeks at minimum wage. Sadly, only 33% of eligible dads take the Dad and Partner Pay. The average secondary carer leave offered in large private organisations is no better, at 7.3 days.
Surely a big part of the change we need is to scrap the arbitrary notion of primary and secondary caregivers, and explicitly acknowledge that dads have every right, and are just as capable of being great parents as mums.
So what do we do now?
The Forum itself was a statement of ambition – a quorum intent on challenging these antiquated, unhelpful notions of fatherhood. The participants discussed and searched for better way to help dads immerse themselves in their kids’ lives whilst holding on to their careers. Government policy doesn’t look like it will move anytime soon. Getting sizeable change requires a long game with the active participation of all the groups represented at the Forum.
There are services available for dads from the pregnancy onwards, like SMS4Dads and Dads Group that offer advice and support networks for new dads. Some big private sector employers are leading the charge on changing gendered workplace practices. Westpac has about 75% of its dads working flexibly, and there is an emerging leadership culture that values extended parental leave for dads.
ANU has introduced new generous parental leave packages for all parents, centrally managed to ensure the policy is fairly applied to everyone. Survey work by La Trobe has been done to better understand dads’ attitudes to work and family, with more research in the pipeline.
A new exhibit called Aussie Dads is about to tour Sydney and Melbourne, promoting dads who take extended leave from work to care for their kids.
We need all of these pieces working together and a whole lot more. This is going to be a change measured in inches, one household, one employer, one daycare centre, and one community at a time, but it is exciting to see a commitment to change across the academic, business and government spectrum.
Hopefully in ten years the idea that a dad might take 6 months’ off to care for a new baby or work part-time to spend more days with their kids will be totally normal and uninteresting. Until then we all need to work towards making that the reality.