Last month, Commonwealth Bank released research on Australians attitudes to taking parental leave with an overwhelming majority- 93 per cent- agreeing that it’s more acceptable for men to take parental leave compared to 5 years ago (1). Over 80 percent of survey respondents agreed that equal parental leave will lead to greater gender equality in the workplace. Further, OECD research shows direct health benefits to fathers taking parental leave; the more fathers engage with their children, they report greater life satisfaction and increased physical and mental health (2).
Societally it seems, workplace attitudes are changing in supporting men to be much more involved as dads.
The Australian Government funds the Dad & Partner Program where Dads (including same-sex partners) earning $150,000 or less in the financial year, get 2 weeks leave paid at the national minimum wage. Just under one in four Australian companies offer two weeks paid secondary carer’s leave, with Medibank Private recently acknowledged as the Best Australian Workplace for New Dads 2018 (3). Medibank Privates’ FamilyFLEX policy enables all eligible prospective parents, regardless of whether they’re the primary or secondary carer, 14 weeks of paid leave within the first 24 months, including taking leave at the same time as their partner. Aurizon’s ‘Shared Care’ program provides a financial incentive based on ‘half-pay’ for a partner to take a leave of absence to stay at home and care for their child in their first year, allowing the mother to return to work full-time. Aurizon male employees are required to take on primary care of their child for at least 13 weeks during their child’s first 12 months, while their partner returns to full time work receiving 50% of his salary while he is undertaking full time care of his child, up to a maximum of 26 weeks. AECOM’s Term Time Only Contracts pilot program designed to encourage qualified engineers and scientists to return to an industry they may have left because it was impossible to balance work and primary care responsibilities, allows parents or grandparents, to spend all 12 weeks of the school holidays caring for their children while receiving a monthly pro-rata salary.
Structurally, leading Australian corporates are innovating through parental leave entitlements (and flexible work practices) that allow new dads and non-birth partners to balance their roles for the benefit of their families.
How are these changes directly impacting take-up? The number of men participating in the government-funded Dad & Partner Program has increased marginally from 68,500 in 2011 to 80,000 in 2016, demonstrating that the Dad & Partner Program has not been a game changer for how the majority of households allocate work and care. Paid primary carers’ leave is on average 10.1 weeks and women are using 95 per cent of it (4). By State, over a third of Queenslanders were hesitant to take parental leave because they feel it’s viewed negatively in the workplace (1).
Here’s the rub- despite changing attitudes and increasing availability of corporate and government parental leave schemes, take up is scant. Just 4−5% of two-parent Australian families are stay-at-home fathers.
Some argue that women shoulder the burden of caring work because it is simply a reflection of women preferring to do the nurturing, or just the result of a ‘who does it best’ discussion at home. But inequalities between mums and dads are not driven solely by individual beliefs or interpersonal interactions.
Gendered stereotypes play front and centre in reasons why men are often reluctant to take up their parental leave entitlements.
Men who seek flexibility for caregiving roles are perceived by both men and women as less masculine and rated higher on feminine traits (5). Australia has deeply embedded bias of associating men with leadership and women with nurturing, displaying a significantly stronger male breadwinner culture compared to other countries (even higher than the United States) that continues to hinder gender equality in paid and unpaid work (6). The Australian Human Rights Commission found that 27 percent of fathers or partners who take up parental leave, report parental leave discrimination. Of the fathers and partners who experienced discrimination at least once at work, half of them reported receiving negative comments from their manager and fellow employees. Men are also twice as likely as women to have their request to work flexibly rejected (7). Stereotypical comments still persist that women are more suited to nurturing, despite the majority of neuro-scientific findings showing minimal gender differences- and those that do arise are formed culturally (8).
“Culturally, two deeply held and embedded beliefs impacting gender equity progress in Australia are that a good mother stays home with her children, and that a serious worker is available 24×7 and has no obvious family commitments”.
Persistent cultural beliefs, as stated above by Australia’s previous Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, perpetuate stereotypes where women returning to work after parental leave find opportunities or promotions often withheld on the generalisation that mothers will not or should not want them. Men face expectations that as they are the main breadwinners, they should not ask, or get time off for caregiving responsibilities. This further impacts pay equality; because dads earn more, they are less likely to take time to care, which means dads continue to earn more. In the UK, gender pay reporting shows that nationally there is still a significant gap between the pay of women and men where 8 in 10 companies and public bodies pay men more. “So when it comes to deciding which will be sacrificed during parental leave it often makes economic sense to give up the lower salary, which is often the woman’s” (9). Driving pay equality crucially places women on equal standing with men in the household, resulting in more women likely to stay in the workforce. Australia’s gender pay gap is 15.3 percent, and for the past two decades has averaged between 15 and 19 percent (WGEA).
The Australian initiative ‘Seat at the Table’ found recently for every 1 month leave a man takes in the first year of a child’s life, his female partner’s lifetime income goes up by 6 per cent.
Rarely do leaders role model flexible work practices- yet many CEOs appear to pioneer flexibility policies and pay equity. In a lot of cases, the talk doesn’t match the walk. But these are the cues from where employees take their lead. Barriers impacting flexibility at different levels of management and leadership are important to understand to design attractive solutions for parental leave. Simon Slade, CEO of Affilorama, offers his employees 12 weeks of parental leave, but only after talking with other parents did he take a full month of leave. Toms Shoes offers 8 weeks of paid leave for all parents, and a flexible schedule as they return to work, and founder/ CEO Blake Mycoskie took 12 weeks of parental leave after his building operations manager returned with a renewed sense of purpose for work and life.
The majority of senior leaders and managers work on a full-time basis which contrasts and reinforces the status quo- the message that taking parental leave or working flexibility is not appropriate to be promoted or make it to a management level.
Change has to come from the top- the responsibility of leaders and managers is to lead the way in creating cultures that are inclusive and flexible for families. Chris Sutherland, Australian CEO of Programmed says social norms around childcare need to change to be considered normal for fathers taking on childrearing responsibilities. Chief Executive Women & Bain & Co’s 2015 report speculates that Australian men are 10 to 15 years behind women in adopting flexible working, and urges a complete rethink on the way men are viewed by their bosses when they ask for work flexibility.
In my own personal experience working for large corporates in leadership roles, flexibility is a mindset. Working flexibly in client facing roles in the UK was enabled by senior leaders who took parental leave themselves. Taking 12 months parental leave for each child was priceless for our family, while my husband works for family companies who pride themselves on family policies and fluid flexibility. We have had multiple periods of one parent travelling for work while the other takes leave to be the full time carer. Switching to an internal senior role 100% working from home was empowered by +2 leaders role modelling these arrangements. Now I consult with organisations on the diversity, inclusion & wellness benefits of leave and flexibility.
Mitchell Services collaborates with organisations to mindfully cultivate diverse, inclusive and well workplaces.
- OECD. (2016). Parental leave: Where are the fathers http://www.oecd.org/gender/parental-leave-where-are-the-fathers.pdf
- Vandello, J. A., Hettinger, V. E., Bosson, J. K., & Siddiqi, J. (2013). When equal isn’t really equal: The masculine dilemma of seeking work flexibility. Journal of Social Issues, 69(2), 303-321. doi: 10.1111/josi.12016
- Baxter, J. & Hewitt, B. (2103). Negotiating Domestic Labor: Women’s Earnings and Housework Time in Australia. Feminist Economics Vol. 19.
- Australian Human Rights Commission. (2014). Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review – Report. AHRC: Australia.
- Fine, C. (2010). Delusions of Gender. Icon Books: UK.