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Support men as equal parenting partners



Ten years ago, women spent a lot of time trying to 'have it all' — both a rewarding career and a family life. But it's clear now that 'having it all' is impossible and trying to achieve it just leads to stress and burnout.

Father holding baby (Wavebreakmedia / Getty) Women may be capable, especially when it comes to things like multitasking and emotional labour, but they're not superheroes. Some declare it a failure of feminism that this juggle has proved too difficult for most of us, but if we were ever going to have it all, we needed some help to get there (and still do).

That help has been slow in coming. A recent report by AIFS shows that only one in 20 men takes primary parental leave after the birth of a child and very few work part-time. Women continue to take time out of their working lives to care for children while men's careers carry on pretty much the same as they did before.

This expectation that mothers are the default primary carers for children is a contributing factor to poorer outcomes for women such as the gender pay gap (currently standing at 14.1 per cent of full-time earnings) and superannuation balances that are on average 42 per cent lower at retirement than for men.

If we really want to address this gender inequity, we need to make it easy for fathers to take on a larger caregiving role at home.

Employers play an enormous role in this shift. A WGEA insight paper into gender-balanced parental leave argued that employers have a crucial role in normalising fathers' utilisation of parental leave and flexible working to meet caring requirements. Critical to fathers' uptake of parental leave was a supportive workplace culture and leadership support.

Employer-led change is happening. Medibank introduced FamilyFlex in 2018, which swaps leave for 'primary' and 'secondary' carers for a universal policy offering 14 weeks' leave to all parents. 'We want to change the story and provide greater flexibility and participation in carer responsibilities regardless of gender. Parental leave disproportionately affects female employees, and it shouldn't,' Medibank Group Executive of People and Culture Kylie Bishop said at the time.


"Every workplace in the country should be family friendly by default. We're accustomed to mothers working part-time — it should be completely normal for fathers to work part-time too."


From 1 July, law firm Baker McKenzie will offer its employees 18 weeks of leave following the birth or adoption of a child, regardless of whether they are the mother of father. 'Gender-neutral parental leave policies help us move away from "women having babies" to "people raising families",' Anne-Marie Allgrove, chair of Baker McKenzie's Diversity and Inclusion Committee, told Women's Agenda. At Telstra, 16 per cent of all employees who took primary carer parental leave in 2017-18 were men — a considerably higher proportion than the national average at five per cent.

But progress is patchy, even at Telstra, which introduced its All Roles Flex policy in 2014. The number of women who work part-time at Telstra still far outnumbers part-time men: 14.2 per cent of Telstra's female employees work part-time, while men who work part-time are still a rarity, making up just 1.7 per cent of all male employees.

If we want more men to take on a greater role in caregiving, what we need is structural change: universal, use-it-or-lose-it parental leave that is offered to both parents instead of the old primary and secondary caregiver model that entrenches existing limiting gender roles.

Iceland and Sweden, whose parental leave policies include three months of non-transferrable leave allocated to each parent, have the highest percentage of men (45 per cent) receiving government-funded paid parental leave in the OECD. The two countries also have the highest number of days of parental leave used by men: in 2016, 29 per cent and 28 per cent of parental leave days were used by men respectively.

Every workplace in the country should be family friendly by default. We're accustomed to mothers working part-time — it should be completely normal for fathers to work part-time too. Yet research by the University of Plymouth found that men who request flexible work arrangements must contend with the 'fatherhood penalty' — a negative bias that saw their commitment to their career questioned.

The benefits of allowing families to adopt a more gender-balanced approach to parenting aren't just economic. A Swedish study assessing the impact of a law that allowed fathers to take 30 days of leave at any time in the 12 months after birth while the mother was still on maternity leave found that maternal postpartum health was dramatically improved.

According to a report in the New York Times: 'In the first six months postpartum, there was a 26 per cent decrease in anti-anxiety prescriptions compared with mothers who gave birth just before the policy went into effect. There was a 14 per cent reduction in hospitalisations or visits to a specialist, and an 11 per cent decrease in antibiotic prescriptions.'

For the nation's health and economic wellbeing, we should allow parents the leeway to fulfil their family commitments in the workday — after all, happy workers are productive workers.



Nicola HeathNicola Heath is a freelance journalist who writes about the workplace, social affairs, sustainability, and the arts and entertainment. She tweets at @nicoheath.

Main image: Wavebreakmedia / Getty

Topic tags: Nicola Heath, paid parental leave, feminism



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Existing comments

I've recently visited Sweden and had a conversation there about maternity and paternity leave. There are generous provisions for both types of leave, however the child then enters government-funded care at 16 months of age and the female returns to work. I was informed this made for a 'more trusting' society. I very much agree that more provision for men to be primary caregivers is an excellent idea. I also think that the flexibility to be a full-time parent for 'x' number of years is beneficial, and hugely enjoyable, for a family. If only the economy could cope!

Pam | 12 June 2019  

The validity of apparent beneficial effects for the child attributable to maternal leave is questionable when the benefits are not compared with the effects in those mothers who do work. Further the benefits may not apply equally to mother and father since the maternal influence of the mother is of necessity far greater than that of the father in the newborn for a considerable time after the birth of a child. Gender is not an equivalent feature of the mother and father.

john frawley | 13 June 2019  

Could it be that real gender difference is being subsumed into ideologically constructed gender sameness in the name of the new mono-value: equity? Ancient Sparta went down a similar path . . .

John RD | 13 June 2019  

Apologies. Above comment should have read '... compared with the effects in those mothers WHO DO NOT WORK.'

john frawley | 13 June 2019  

I believe the first six months of a baby’s life is best with Mum, but support is essential. As a mother of three, I found giving up my job and staying home for some years, good for the children, but disempowering for me and it made our financial position difficult. I would have loved to go back to part time work earlier and my husband to be more involved in the children’s early years. If possible, the raising of children more evenly between mother and father is better for all. However, I can’t see this being possible with current insecure working conditions and cost of living.

Kate | 13 June 2019  

Here are some loosely connected facts. 1). In America, only 14% of workers have access to paid family leave; one in four mothers go back to work within ten days of giving birth. 2). Less than 10% of US workers are in a union. 3). The Australian government wants to bring in legislation that will curb the influence of unions. You can join the dots yourself.

Frank | 14 June 2019  

Of course, one forgets that the breakdown in society is being caused by everyone wanting something rather than accepting you cannot have it all. i would rather a parent be home to see my child off to school in the morning and be there when they got home in the afternoon. To just be there - you know; show some love and affection, help with school work, talk about what has happened during the day, have a warm cup of soup ready. We leave our children on their own too much because we want to have our cake and eat it to. Motherhood is wonderful. Fatherhood is wonderful.

PHILLIP ROWAN | 14 June 2019  

Yes absolutely, men should be supported as equal parenting partners - and reform to parental leave is a great way of achieving this. We have not begun, however, to consider the wider policy and societal structural changes necessary to achieve this. A driver to reform should be greater gender role equity and equality. We should also be driven by the social and economic costs of NOT having men engaged in parenting their children from a very young age. In economic terms alone the burden to the economy, due to absentee and disengaged fathers, is staggering. (Even if we only consider the costs of youth homelessness to society). Fathers play a vital role in the development of children and adolescents. We need flexible parental leave arrangements and wider family friendly policies during ALL the critical stages of a child’s development.

mike kelly | 14 June 2019  

We forget that the breakdown in society is caused by everyone wanting something rather than accepting that we cannot have it all? I find this a strange comment by a member of society whose gender has always striven for this. And been annoyed when not accomplished. Yes, motherhood is wonderful when not having to do it alone. Fatherhood? I suppose that can be wonderful - especially if there when needed.

Liz | 15 June 2019  

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