Working dad Professor Robert Kelly found accidental fame when his live BBC interview was interrupted by his children. Picture: WSJ
Working dad Professor Robert Kelly found accidental fame when his live BBC interview was interrupted by his children. Picture: WSJ

It’s time to talk about parental leave for dads

Every few months, a new report or statistics comes out saying how far we have to go when it comes to workplace gender equality.

As a society, we have been focusing so long on working mums that we've forgotten about the dads.

And while it's true that we still have a long way to go (the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, or WGEA, said as much in their recently released annual scorecard, which found only a 0.5 per cent improvement between April 2018 and March 2019,) it's time to stop focusing on just women, and start factoring men into the equation.

A few years ago, WORK180 conducted a survey asking what women want most in the workplace. Instead of asking for favourable treatment, they said they want equal treatment: and this meant normalising gender-neutral policies in the workplace.

Channel 9’s House Husbands portrayed stay-at-home and working fathers. Picture: Channel 9
Channel 9’s House Husbands portrayed stay-at-home and working fathers. Picture: Channel 9

It's becoming increasingly clear that women can't just do this on their own - and nor should they. In most workplaces, it is men who are still in charge and making most of the decisions that impact both women and men, and in order to see any meaningful impact we must get them on board.

But to get through, we need to first tackle some high level and deeply ingrained gender perceptions that are, in so many ways, making the lives of both men and women so much more difficult than they need to be - such as who is entitled to parental leave.

When it comes to the issue, Australia is actually not faring as well as we think we are. According to the most recent government statistics, in 2016-17, women took 95 per cent of the primary parental leave used by private sector employees, while men took 95 per cent of secondary parental leave.

This means that just one in 20 Australian fathers take primary parental leave, which is a low number by global standards.

It's not that dads don't want to be involved: in fact, three in four fathers say they would like to take more leave, as documented in a 2014 review of working parents by the Human Rights Commission, but that they feel unable to do so due to economic, societal and professional pressures placed upon them.

Economically-speaking, Australia's failure to establish a nationally legislated 'shared parental leave' approach; a tendency to label fathers as 'secondary carers' (who get two weeks paid leave from the government as compared to the 18 weeks taken by the mother); and the lack of provisions for secondary carers in many workplaces means that in many cases financially, it does not make sense for fathers to take time out of work.

This is compounded by the existing gender pay gap (WGEA says men are still taking home nearly $26,000 more a year than women), which still sees men significantly out-earning their partners.

From a societal level, we still tend to think that being a dad means you're the family breadwinner, and being a mum is to be the homemaker. These entrenched gender roles mean that fathers who take extended leave are often worried about - and even experience - stigma and bias for their decision, which can be quite detrimental to their careers.

Which brings me to the professional consequences part: the ingrained assumption (unfortunately, still a reality in many places) that caretaking impacts significantly on career prospects and pay progress, and all the negative stories about women losing their jobs or stagnating professionally because of their childcare responsibilities means that so many fathers are simply scared to go down the same road.

We still tend to think that being a dad means being the breadwinner. Picture: iStock
We still tend to think that being a dad means being the breadwinner. Picture: iStock

And it doesn't help they have so little examples of men to follow. But things are changing, and at WORK180, we have seen them change in real time.

Firstly, the division between primary and secondary carer is slowly being eroded. While it seems harmless enough, this division essentially prioritises one parent (usually the mother) over the other, and places undue pressure on one parent to take leave.

In order to solve this, companies we work with are doing away with primary and secondary carer titles altogether. In the words of Deloitte, "nothing is more important than the arrival of a new addition to the family, and both parents should have the opportunity to provide support to their children through those early years - this is why internally, Deloitte has removed all the old fashioned titles like primary and secondary carers."

Access to flexible working also plays a big part in enabling men to contribute and share family responsibilities. Taking it one step further, businesses need to understand that flexibility means different things to everyone.

Next steps could be to create mandatory parental leave policy for both men and women, as data shows that when companies offer elective paternity leave, men are apt not to take it for a variety of reasons. This has worked in Sweden, where both parents are entitled to 480 days (16 months) of paid parental leave at about 80 per cent of their salary - with the caveat being that fathers must take some of that leave, or both parents lose it.

Underlying all this is that we need to stop seeing parental leave as maternity leave - and a woman's problem. It is no longer acceptable to equal childcare with only mothers: it takes two to tango, and it takes two to raise a child, and the more we emphasise this and expect it of our employers, the quicker it will become the new norm.

Valeria Ignatieva is co founder and co-CEO of WORK180.



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