Australia cannot afford a 'lost decade' on parental leave equality

Australia cannot afford a ‘lost decade’ on parental leave equality

Parental leave equality
As I recently read Annabel Crabb’s Quarterly Essay, Men At Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap, I couldn’t help but have an intense sense of déjà vu, which sent me looking back through my “feminist archives”, my personal stockpile of bits and pieces from twenty plus years spent working towards gender equality in four countries.

(I last dipped into them to write about the undervaluing of women’s work and how that was contributing to a “caring time bomb” – with Australia and other developed countries poised to reach the end of the fuse. Exhibit A: I give you the Aged Care Royal Commission.)

This time, I dug out a campaign I led exactly ten years ago, when I was the Head of Media for the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission. The campaign, Working Better, essentially argued for parental leave equality, a debate that has gained traction here in Australia in recent months: Marie Claire and Men’s Journal just launched a campaign with a number of celebrity ambassadors, including Steve “Commando” Willis, while the Advancing Parental Leave Equality Network was launched earlier this year, ideas that are very much at the heart of Crabb’s essay.

Ten years ago in the UK, we announced a year-long Working Better inquiry that culminated in a report and campaign of the same name featuring a costed, phased new approach to parental leave that gave more leave to fathers in their own right (so called “use it or lose it” provision) at higher replacement salary rates — all of which have been proven elsewhere in the world to radically increase men’s uptake of parental leave and transform domestic democracy.

At the time we launched the campaign, we named a lot of the elephants in the room in regards to the UK’s existing approach to maternity leave. Essentially, the unintended consequences of more than a decade of Labour policy that gave ever more generous leave exclusively to mothers, but nothing to fathers.

Amid cries of “you can’t do that”, particularly from within the UK feminist movement for whom maternity leave had been a hard-fought right, we highlighted that the existing approach, while a significant step forward at the time of its introduction, was fuelling pregnancy discrimination. Women went to job interviews with a giant ’52 weeks?’ having over their heads, while men did not. And once gendered norms were established over the long year women were at home on leave, it was very hard to later unpick those established patterns and gendered norms regarding housework and care.

At the time, I argued internally and externally that the Commission should stay the course despite the criticism, because I firmly believed that — more than a decade after its introduction — the UK’s approach to maternity leave had reached the limits of its usefulness and was ripe for re-appraisal.

Unfortunately, the Working Better final report coincided with the Global Financial Crisis and the UK embarked on an age of austerity. Such plans were deemed ‘something for another day’ — just too expensive at a time when many essential services were being cut to the bone.

But I always held out hope that someone would take it off the shelf one day and revisit the idea, which seems to have finally happened. Theresa’s May’s final act before stepping down as Prime Minister this year was to launch an inquiry to equalise the roles of men and women at home and “throw down the gauntlet to her successor over paternity leave”.

Still, I can’t help but mourn for the ten years of wasted time, a lost decade. What could have been if the UK had come to this party sooner?

Fast forward to my new life here in Australia ten years later, and Crabb’s Quarterly Essay provides an answer to that question. It chronicles how different countries with the right public policy (including a ‘use it or lose it’ provision and salary replacement rates for leave) transformed men’s behaviour and increased men’s uptake of parental leave in a very short period of time: Iceland from zero to 90 percent in ten years; Norway from 2.4% to 70% in 4 years; Germany from 5-34% in 7 years; and Quebec (the most comparable example for Australia, given its comparable approach to social welfare) from 21.2% to 53.6% in roughly 13 years.

So, it’s fair to say that the UK could have been in that league now, had its leaders heeded the call to act ten years ago.

Here in Australia, I would hate to see Crabb’s essay and many others’ equally salient calls for a change of our current approach to parental leave (which I likewise believe is ripe for a rethink nearly ten years in) fall on deaf ears — or be put in the “too hard” or “too expensive” basket, thus seeing another generation of fathers and their families miss out.

Australia, and Australian families, can ill afford a lost decade of their own.

Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox