Evidence pointing to the benefits of paid parental leave are extensive, but the political debate regards it continues to focus on two things – women and cost.
Why are dads so often overlooked when it comes to paid parental leave? And why do we ignore the positive return on investment – culturally and economically – that comes from supporting fathers as well as mothers to care for their children?
Credit to the current government scheme; Australian fathers who are the primary caregivers receive the same benefit as mothers, but only about one dad for every 500 mums takes it. Most Aussie dads are back at work within two weeks of the birth of a child.
Let’s face it: There is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to gender equality in Australia. This year Australia fell from 17th to 20th place in PwC’s annual ranking of 33 OECD countries on female economic empowerment. The gender pay gap (which, according to the ABS, has hovered between 15 and 19 percent for two decades) is just one of many reasons that men tend to stay at work and women at home. Cost and access to Australian childcare is another massive hurdle.
But entrenched views on the roles of mums and dads at home and work is one of the hardest paradigm shifts and needs our attention.
We know that maternity leave is important to allow mothers to recover from childbirth, bond with their child and establish breastfeeding if they are able. But if we’re serious about gender equality at work, we have to stop treating parental leave as a women’s only benefit.
There is evidence that increased female workplace participation is good for the economy’s bottom line. Recently the La Trobe Business School released a study showing that ASX 500 listed companies that employ more women on their boards make more money.
According to PwC’s latest Women in Work index, increasing women’s workforce participation to match that of Sweden could result in a massive $162 billion boost to our GDP.
A joint working paper released in March by EY and the Peterson Institute for International Economics following a global survey of over 21,000 firms from 91 countries suggests that the presence of women in corporate leadership positions may improve firm performance. The study found that this is not simply because they are women, but because workplace diversity means skill diversity. And because companies that do not discriminate breed better attitudes to work.
Notably, the study also established a positive correlation between the availability of paternity leave and women’s presence in corporate leadership. When child raising is shared, it reduces the expectation by employers that men will necessarily provide greater returns on investment.
The availability of paternity leave was on average 11 times higher in places with high numbers of women in top leadership positions, including Norway, Latvia, Finland, Bulgaria and Slovenia, than countries at the bottom.
While the economic case is compelling, the greatest argument in favour of paternity leave is cultural. As the groundswell of public support in favour of marriage equality shows, we’re a nation that recognises families come in all forms. Pigeonholing fathers under the ‘breadwinner’ banner doesn’t just disadvantage women, it’s a setback for men, too.
In fact, what we typically call ‘maternal instinct’ is in actuality a learned skill. A study by Bar-Ilan University in Israel in 2014 found that dads who are primary caregivers developed the same neural pathways present in new mothers that make them responsive to a baby’s emotional cues.
Tech companies globally are leading the way when it comes to parental leave, but many schemes still extend greater benefits to mothers.
We had a discussion recently around our parental leave policy and what it meant as a cultural signal to our employees. Until last year, we allowed mums to take 16 fully paid weeks and dads to take four. The sentiment among our leaders was unanimous: we want to value parents equally. And we want them to have the time they need to be there for the birth of their child. All Zendesk parents can now take up to 16 paid weeks for the birth of their child. Many countries go even further, and we adhere to the regulations where the statutory entitlement is the greater of the two.
Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, recently posted about the LeanInTogether public awareness campaign involving a handful of NBA players speaking about equality in their marriage. She writes: “Men who are 50/50 partners have stronger marriages — and just as we should support women as leaders, we also have to support men as caregivers. Both sides of this coin work together”.
As the issue of paid parental leave re-enters the spotlight once again, getting the funding right is a necessity and the public and private sectors have a responsibility to work together. The more we can offer parents and families, the better off we’ll all be.
But before we return to the same discussion about ‘working mums’ and treating parental leave as a costly entitlement, let’s have a mature conversation about parental leave as an economic necessity and its role in our future workplaces. And let’s give dads a voice, because paternity leave pays.