Men are increasingly offered paid parental leave so why are they not taking it?

Men are increasingly offered paid parental leave so why are they not taking it? 


Media personality Jessie Stephens recently shared on national television a conversation about dads taking parental leave that is all too familiar. 

“I remember years ago at a place I worked at, a man was taking two weeks parental leave and the boss said, ‘oh, do you need to take some time off to breastfeed?” 

Speaking to The Project, she recalled hearing the comment and immediately knowing it would have a “lasting impact” while also saying a lot about the workplace’s culture. 

Does such stigma prevail in 2023 Australian workplaces? Not everywhere, but definitely in some places. 

The latest data on men taking leave shows just how significant the issue is. 

Overall, 2023 has been a game-changing year for paid parental leave in Australia, with the Albanese Government’s extended Commonwealth funded scheme coming into effect in June, as well as another jump in the proportion of employers offering gender-neutral paid parental leave that is free from limiting ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ carer labels. 

The latest data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency released at the end of November and based on more than 5000 employers with 100 or more employees, highlights where paid parental leave access is improving, and where employers are seeing the value of supporting more diverse experiences of parenting and caring. 

But the data also provides some hints about how stigma and entrenched workplace cultures might be holding men back from taking leave. 

Of the employers that do offer paid parental leave, there was a nine per cent increase in 2022-23 in workplaces offering gender-neutral and label-free leave, or “universal paid parental leave” as WGEA refers to it. WGEA described this as a “hopeful” sign that employers are starting to understand the importance of removing carer labels. 

But WGEA also found that male-dominated industries were still far less likely to offer universal leave than female-dominated industries, meaning many male workers are missing out in areas like Manufacturing and Transport, Postal and Warehousing.  

Meanwhile, the proportion of employers offering some form of paid parental leave in addition to the government-funded leave hardly budged in the reporting period, rising just one percentage point from 62 to 63 per cent in 2022-23. 

Yet, even where paid parental leave is being offered and made more accessible, men are still not taking much of it. 

Overall, men accounted for just 14 per cent of all paid primary carer’s parental leave taken, just a tiny increase of 0.6 per cent. This is despite a growing number of men having the option to take leave funded by their employers. As WGEA Director Mary Wooldridge said on this gap in men being offered but not taking paid parental leave, having good and well-intentioned policies are just the start. “The real hard work comes in changing the culture and the environment, addressing any stigma or underlying stereotypes that inhibit those policies being taken up and put into place.”

Unfortunately, the trend in men taking government-funded paid parental leave also isn’t encouraging. New government figures recently released show the scheme was accessed by 170,200 women in 2022, compared with just 1,020 men. The data shows that 87,895 men accessed the two-week “dad and partner pay”, which has since been removed for the reformed scheme, compared to 745 women. 

Also limiting men and an overall shift in access to PPL are continued vast divides in who has access to PPL, with the WGEA data showing employees can not only be limited by their gender and carer status, but also limited by the size of the business they happen to work for. 

Almost nine in ten (87 per cent) of businesses in the 5000 plus employee range are offering paid primary carers or universally available parental leave, compared with just 57 per cent in the 100 to 246 employee range, and a total figure across all sized employees of 63 per cent. 

Although we don’t have WGEA data on business with less than 100 team members, we know that startups and small businesses can struggle to offer paid parental leave, given concerns about resourcing such policies.

There are also concerns that employers are seeing the government scheme as “enough” for new parents, which goes against expectations from the prime minister earlier this year that employers should step up to complement the system. Forty five per cent of those employers that don’t offer PPL say it’s because the “government scheme is sufficient”. But it’s not. Australia still has one of the least generous paid parental leave schemes when compared to most other OECD nations with an average of over 52 weeks leave on offer.

The uptake of paid parental leave for men is a critical component for shifting entrenched social expectations and creating a stronger environment of shared care. Men need to see role models taking parental leave and role models again highlighting what it means to “share the care”: working flexibly, part time, being open and proud about taking time out for kids. 

So, when men can access the leave, what’s stopping them from doing so? 

First up, there’s the gender pay gap, and the fact men are so often in higher-paid positions. The WGEA data uncovered a 21.7 per cent total remuneration gender pay gap. Men are also still far more likely to be in senior leadership roles, accounting for 78 per cent of CEOs, 59 per cent of senior management positions. 

But there is also the workplace stigma, social norms and entrenched gender stereotypes standing in the way of men taking paid parental leave and even going on to work in part time and flexible positions.  The reality is men need to feel it’s ‘safe’ to take parental leave and many don’t. Fearful that their role, status or performance review will be negatively impacted if they take leave.

Labels matter. While the Federal Government recently rescinded the reference to primary and secondary carer provisions when PPL changes were introduced from July this year, many employer PPL policies still make employees distinguish between being a primary or secondary carer. This has a knock-on effect on how leave and caring duties will be split and shared at home and often, inadvertently, pigeon-hole women as primary carers, and men as having ‘less’ caring responsibilities at home.

There is the fact that men in smaller businesses are less likely to have access to any kind of employer-paid parental leave — an issue that also impacts women, but could put the onus on women to take more unpaid leave regardless of what sized business she works in. 

And there is the entrenched history and expectations we continue to carry regarding who does the care work, despite such expectations coming in sharp contrast to the dramatic increase in women’s workforce participation. 

Many advocates agree on the need for men to be better supported to take parental leave as one of the most important levers government and workplaces have to improve gender equality outcomes, while also benefiting the health and development of children.  Parents At Work has released its latest white paper outlining how employers can adopt a gender neural PPL scheme and is calling on workplaces to benchmark their PPL policy against best practices standards to champion greater Family Friendly Workplaces.

Employers can help change this starting with benchmarking their parental leave policies and practices against The National Work + Family Standards. There is also a business case guide for employers on Advancing Shared Care in Australia through Paid Parental Leave which highlights how employers can contribute to changing how we approach parental leave in Australia.


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