All genders lose out under the parental leave scheme

Australia’s paternity leave policies discriminate against men and there are consequences for everyone

Australia has one of the least generous Paid Parental Leave systems in the world. In heterosexual relationships, only 2 per cent of Australian men take parental leave, as social expectations confine women to unpaid labour in the home, and hypermasculine tropes see men as secondary carers. Most new fathers decide to take only two weeks off. And women who try to juggle caring for children with a career risk being fired.

A simple change that would split responsibility evenly between both parents is Shared Parental Leave.

Aussie Dads, a photography exhibition by Swedish Johan Bävman, is currently touring Australia. The 20 intimate photographs of Australian fathers on extended parental leave with their children were publicly displayed outside the Sydney Opera House. Viewers were left to consider the paternity leave policies of our country.

Sweden was the first country in the world to replace ‘maternity leave’ with ‘parental leave’ in 1974. Over 40 years later Australia is still experimenting with Maternity Leave, Dad and Partner Pay and primary and secondary carer labels. All Swedish parents receive 480 days of paid leave per child to be shared between parents as they wish, with 390 days paid at approximately 80 per cent of the salary. 90 days are reserved for the father, compared to 14 days in Australia.

Dr Marian Baird, Professor of Gender and Employment Relations at USyd, believes “paternity leave in Australia is almost a token policy”. She explains that stigmas in the workplace contribute to the failure of paternity leave, saying “we still have a very strong sense of a female homemaker and carer, and a male breadwinner and worker”.

Parents At Work is Australia’s leading supporter of working parents, and designs best practice gender balanced parental leave policies. CEO Emma Walsh says the exhibition was deliberately intended “to start a national conversation”.

“At the moment, we’ve got primary and secondary caring, and that inadvertently suggests that in every household there is a primary carer and a secondary carer”.

The gender pay gap, in combination with the physical strains mothers feel in post-childbirth recovery, mean that it is impractical for fathers to take time off work. This perpetuates the cycle of women inhabiting unpaid work in the domestic sphere, while normalising men in the workforce, and thus the gender pay gap. It perpetuates the expectations for women to take maternity leave and employers’ justifications for stagnating their career prospects.

For 32-year-old David Brain, expecting his first child this year, paternity leave is limited. He is able to take two weeks of unpaid leave and says that although there is a “more even view of parental responsibilities than there was with my parent’s generation, it certainly isn’t an even split”.

Research consistently shows enormous benefits of paternity leave and men wanting to take it up. Brain undoubtedly hopes for “close bonding with his son in the critical early years”. Research by the Human Rights Commission (2014) showed three in four fathers would have liked to take additional leave, but either couldn’t afford it, didn’t know it was possible, had no access to annual leave entitlements, or thought it wouldn’t be granted.

The Aussie Dads exhibition showcased fathers crafting strong emotional relationships with their children, and as research proves, fathers who are involved in caring for a child in the early years are highly likely to continue that engagement throughout a child’s lifetime.

Reflecting on the benefits, Walsh says Australian companies need to ask, “How easy do we make it for fathers to get involved?”

Taking USyd’s parental leave policies as an example, the mechanisms that push men to take on child-rearing roles are often absent. USyd offers ‘Paid Short Partner Leave’, at five paid days, while Paid Maternity Leave is offered either on a pro-rata basis, or offers 14 weeks paid leave. This system is typical for Australian businesses.

But it’s also our spaces and lives entrench the expectations that women should care for children.. In the Jane Foss Russell Building for example, only the female bathrooms double as baby change rooms.

“By having Dad and Partner Pay, and making it 2 weeks, it suggests that dads should just take 2 weeks off. I know that wasn’t the intention, but it’s an unintended consequence of what was intended to be a good policy”, says Walsh.

Policy can be amended overnight, but it can take years for culture and norms to see significant change. Walsh’s advice is for employers to get into the habit of asking fathers not “if” but “when are you taking parental leave”. This creates the expectation that the father will take leave, and the expectation that their company will support them. It’s subtle, but very meaningful. It’s things like that that will help to normalise father’s caring role in society,” urges Walsh.

To achieve gender equality, it is urgent for USyd, and Australia, to rethink its approach toward Paid Parental Leave. When you look at the effects in the home and the workplace, it becomes clear that it’s time to stop overlooking men in the realm of parenting, and time for women’s careers to stop being penalised.