Steve ‘The Commando’ Willis isn’t known for sharing much emotion, but that’s exactly what the former Biggest Loser trainer did on Wednesday night in front of a corporate audience.
He left some in the room in tears as he recounted his own experiences as a father of four – and the massive change he’s personally undergone from when his first daughter was born twenty or so years ago until the more recent arrival of his son Axel (now three).
It’s a transformation that’s taken him out of his comfort zone and into spending more time with his kids, a shift that’s also seen him become the public face of a movement pushing for paid parental leave equality.
He wants more Dads to feel comfortable with their caring responsibilities – and more workplaces to support them in doing so.
“That’s what I understand now about bravery, strength and courage,” Willis said. “When I was younger in the military, I could be an aggressive MOFO in a heartbeat. We would turn it on and it can sometimes be easy as a man to do that.
“But to be something different, to be all those other things, that is hard work. To be courageous and vulnerable in a way that you don’t need to use this energy and in a way that you don’t need to put on the façade of trying to be somebody that you’re not, that’s difficult.”
Willis joined the panel session at McGrath Nicol asking how workplaces can better support dads and address the evolving role of fathers, hosted by Moir Group as well as Parents At Work, Peoplecorp and Karitane.
It was a conversation that was attended by more men than women, and one that addressed how difficult it will be to pursue gender equality at work unless we can shift cultural and social norms around who manages the caring responsibilities at home.
Also on the panel was Luke Benedictus, a former Men’s Health editor and one of three founders of a new website called the-father-hood.com, offering support, advice and inspiration to Australian Dads. The trio started the publication after realising there was very little available for modern dads, compared to how much media is available for mums.
Meanwhile, National Mental Health Commission chair Lucy Brogden shared some vital perspectives on mental health, and Minter Ellison Head of Talent Development noted some of the things her firm has introduced to help.
From the panel, Willis recalled leaving the military and starting work in the fitness industry when his daughter came along. He was working for himself and spent long hours in the gym. “I really didn’t question my way of being, I just took it on. That was my role. My responsibility. I had to provide for my family.
And the idea of taking parental leave? That would have been “absurd” he said.
Willis concedes that it took him a long time to step away from the comfortable in order to experience a “new way of being”. His children have shown him the way and he says he derives a new kind of strength and energy from caring. “Men can feel this too. There is no need for the violence and the destruction that has been, we can step into a new way and a new age of being.”
Brogden noted just how difficult it can be for men to make different choices – particularly given loaded terms like ‘breadwinner’, stereotypes that have been tough to dismantle regarding who does what at home, and the financial stress that many Australians face. “The average Australian is just three pay packets from bankruptcy and losing their bonus. There are people in this room that live that precarious life. That starts to limit the options and it adds to that load.”
She recommended employers do more to get to know their staff and to do what they can to help take some of the ‘load’ employees feel, especially regarding their mental health.
Panel moderator and Parents At Work CEO Emma Walsh noted that the majority of Australians have no access to a paid parental leave scheme outside of the minimum wage on offer from the government. “If you are an employer in the room that has the ability to do that, then it may be a civic duty to do so,” she said.
At Minter Ellison, Kate Cato shared how they have partnered with Karitane in order to offer better support services to all new parents — including the ability to access a professional nurse while on parental leave.
A number of dads in the audience spoke up during the session, including one who noted he was “congratulated” for taking parental leave – something he believes wouldn’t be said to a woman. He said he wants more workplaces to simply expect that new dads will be a parent and be taking on responsibilities at home.
As we’ve frequently reported here on Women’s Agenda, more employers are offering equal amounts of paid parental leave to both primary and secondary carers and some are actively pushing more men to work flexibly and their leaders to demonstrate how they’re handling their caring responsibilities.
There are changes happening in the corporate world — but the policies will only be as good as their uptake by staff, particularly male leaders in the organisation who can enable flexible work and parental leave to be the ‘norm’, rather than options available for everyone — that then new mums only really take up.
And these policies are far from available for the majority of Australians, who don’t have access to an employer paid parental leave scheme and may find negotiating for a flexible working arrangement that suits their needs difficult.
Spokespeople like Willis will help in spreading the message. And this coming father’s day is a good time to have the discussion.
But we need a much broader social, community and government push to get change that will ultimately contribute to a greater sharing of caring responsibilities, including through better parental leave opportunities for so-called ‘secondary’ carers.
While we’re at it, let’s banish those ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ carer labels.