Why we need an urgent rethink on parental leave in Australia

Why we need an urgent rethink on parental leave in Australia

parental leave
The ‘maternity leave’ debate is alive and kicking almost ten years on since the introduction of the government’s first paid parental leave scheme. But this time, it’s not about mums taking leave – it’s about dads. And rightly so.

ABC journalist, presenter and author of The Wife Drought, Annabel Crabb, recently published her Quarterly Essay, Men At Work – Australia’s Parenthood Trap’ . Hands down, it’s the most comprehensive assessment of Australia’s lack of parental leave equality to be written.

And we need to seriously listen to the gender imbalance messages it contains if we’re going to ever see men liberated from boardrooms to playgrounds and family mental health outcomes improve.

Annabel’s essay argues that for true gender equity to be achieved, men must be allowed to leave the workplace just as freely that now, after decades of progress, women are allowed to enter it.

Makes sense, right? So why aren’t men lining up to be at home to share the care?

The silent STOP signs for dads

Research and experience have taught me that there are many systematic barriers that prevent men from caring for children – they are cultural, gendered and financial.

We know that the expectations placed upon men and women in the workplace are vastly different when it comes to flexibility, part-time work, and especially parental leave. Overwhelmingly it is women who are expected to take on a disproportionate amount of ‘caring’ leave.

Fundamentally, it’s about how we see men and their role in the family.

There is still very much a stigma that taking care of the children is a ‘mother’s job’, and this leaves many potential male parental leavers fearing a sense of isolation and general workplace discrimination. They’re not wrong; these are the challenges most mothers face every day – and men can see the impact it has on women’s career prospects and earning potential, so why would they risk it on theirs?

“We know and have accepted that a woman’s capacity in a job is the same as a man’s; this concept is no longer radical,” writes Crabb. “So how can it be that working a compressed work week, working part-time or taking parental leave for a chunk of time is deeply unremarkable – indeed, expected – for women, and yet for men, it’s a matter of privilege, luck or indeed in some cases flatly unthinkable?”

“It’s the same job,” Crabb continues. “The same equation. The same rearrangement of matter when a woman takes six months off from Job X as when a man does. But the neural tissue we’ve built around these ideas makes those circumstances unrecognisable, one from the other”.

The idea of parental leave, in particular, being an either/or thing is very much instilled in our workplace and societal culture, and the idea of both parents taking leave – especially at the same time – is almost unheard of. We are forcing parents to choose who the primary caregiver will be and who will have to work, and this has to stop.

Government vs employers role in making a difference

Both the national Paid Parental Leave Policy and most private-sector policies exacerbate these expectations. The government Paid Parental Leave scheme that came into effect in 2010 gives 18 weeks minimum wage to the ‘primary carer’, and the assisting ‘Dad and Partner Pay’ provides for two weeks minimum wage (so long as they’re not being paid by their employer at the time they use the leave).

“It made it very clear who was expected to be the primary carer, and who the secondary,” writes Crabb. “And parents followed suit … In that time, [only] 6250 men have taken primary carer leave under the scheme. That puts the rate of men’s involvement at 0.5 per cent. Half of one per cent of the number of mothers.”

And what about same sex couples – how do you navigate this minefield when ‘Dad and Partner Pay’ leaves you with the impression it’s clearly the mum that will be the primary carer.  If you’re a same-sex male couple, do you both apply for Dad and Partner Pay?

Globally, most other comparable OECD nations are investing in shared paid parental leave – even in the United States.  Although the U.S. lacks a national program, there are currently five U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, that guarantee paid parental leave. Rather than designating one parent as the ‘primary’ carer and the other as ‘secondary’, the U.S. laws provide each parent an independent right to paid leave to ‘bond’ with a new baby. Dads get just as much time as mums (12 weeks).

Australia’s gendered ‘carer’ labels and lack of flexibility in how paid parental leave provisions can be shared needs an immediate legislative review at the very least, and the particular issues around the government scheme have been well identified – most recently at the Next Steps for Paid Parental Leave Roundtable event in Canberra.

The roundtable had the architects of the first paid parental leave scheme in Australia meet to reflect on what has been achieved so far and what there is to build on. They found that that this ‘primary carer’ leave is only transferred to fathers in about 2% of cases. And even for dads wanting leave, many men are unaware of their leave entitlements, and information on policies and the application process is complex – deterring many fathers. The fact that the scheme uses a flat rate wage, based on the national minimum wage, rather than wage replacement, also creates a financial barrier to many if employers don’t provide additional paid leave.

The roundtable concluded that to improve the current uptake of leave and better the scheme, there needs to be an increase in the duration, employers must be encouraged to offer paid leave as well, and men need to feel empowered to use the leave by easier information and access.

It’s time for companies to step up

Private sector uptake statistics are not much better. Only one in 20 employees who take up their company’s ‘primary carer’ parental leave scheme is a man. A study done by the Human Rights Commission found that 85% of fathers and partners survey took less than four weeks leave.

Most companies still use the terms ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ to distinguish between parental leave offerings, and the unspoken consensus in many workplaces is that dad comes firmly under the ‘secondary’ label.

Yet the business case for parental leave equality is proven time and time again.

One of the most obvious results is employee retention – providing paid leave and family-friendly workplace policies means lower rates of staff turn-over, resulting in lower recruitment and training costs. Studies show that first-time mothers who take paid leave are more likely than those who take unpaid leave or no leave, to return to the same employer.

Furthermore, a company with best practice parental leave is considered an ‘employer of choice’ by potential employees.

As the modern Australian family evolves, so too does its needs and more parents are looking for an organisation that allows flexibility and encourages work and life integration. And the more major companies that update their parental leave policies to reflect this – like in recent years Medibank, Telstra, Deloitte, QBE, Spotify, Diageo, ING, Baker McKenzie and KPMG, to name a few – then the more pressure it places on others to compete in that growing ‘family-friendly workplace’ market.

“Parental leave is a prudent investment,” writes Annabel. “It might cost twelve or more weeks’ wages to grant it to an employee, but if it saves you having to recruit and train a replacement, wins you the trust and loyalty of that employee and advertises you as an employer of choice, then the expense starts to look quite manageable.”

With a clear business case, it’s frustrating that so many organisations (and the government) are still holding onto outdated models of parental leave that both disincentivise and disenfranchise men from accessing leave.

So what can we do, as businesses and as a society to encourage Australian fathers to take up parental leave?

Breaking the stigma

Firstly, if you’re a dad wanting to take parental leave, ask for it. Or ask what flexible work options are available. Be brave, get the conversation started with your employer as more likely than not, you’re not the only father in your workplace wanting to take parental leave or work flexibly to care for kids.

Unfortunately, even in organisations where dads do have access to parental leave, many do not take it for fear of it affecting their career or simply because it’s not really the ‘done thing’. This is why it’s crucial that we have business leaders – CEOs and managers – taking up parental leave, and proudly so.

When a workplace sees their manager taking extended leave after the birth of their baby, or leaving an hour early to make a school event, it gives employees permission to do the same. The cultural change that is needed within a workplace will start from the top, as business leaders set the precedent and example that not only are family-friendly workplace policies available, but also actively encouraged.

Best practice parental leave

Employers need to review their current approach to parental leave and evaluate the real benefits of investing in a scheme that supports their workforce – this includes understanding the talent attraction, retention and gender equality wins of making the scheme equally accessible to men and women.

Before Medibank overhauled its parental leave scheme in 2018 they asked their employees what they wanted.

“We went out and spoke to our people – about the good, the bad, what’s working, what’s not,” says Kylie Bishop, Medibank’s Group Executive of People and Culture. “We spoke to people who had been on parental leave, who were about to go on parental leave, and those who hadn’t but who had a view on what that might mean for them in the future … what became obvious was that the old policy hadn’t moved with the times.”[1]

As a result Medibank removed the ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ carer labels and made its policy flexible in its application.

The more organisations embrace a shared, gender-neutral approach to parental leave, the better chance we give our both working parents the ability to care for their families whilst pursuing their careers.

A dad’s place – at work and  home

Crabb asserts that many women leaders are asked the question ‘How do you manage family with work?’, but it’s a question not often directed towards men.

“It says [to fathers], ‘No one expects you to care about this.’” Crabb writes. “It says, ‘It’s not your job to worry about that stuff.’

And the same goes for parental leave. When we aren’t giving men the same opportunity of parental leave that we give women, we’re saying to them, ‘You’re not needed at home. Your place is at work.’ And this simply is not true.

Parental leave policies that intentionally encourage fathers to take leave, work flexibly, and engage at home are guaranteed to positively impact gender equality at both home and at work.

It’s time for action. We need to continue to raise awareness of the urgent need for parental leave equality and the positive benefits it has on families, the wider community and the economy. I hope that my sons and daughter will one day have an equal right and opportunity to share the care.

To learn more about how your organisation can improve your family-friendly workplace policies, contact Parents At Work for a free discussion and www.aplen.com.au to keep up to date with the Parental Leave Equality Campaign.


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