The Truth About Parental Leave & How It Can Make You A Better Man

Luke BenedictusBy Luke Benedictus.
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A sleep-deprived dad pushing his newborn baby in a pram may not immediately look like he’s channelling his inner Che Guevara. But appearances can prove deceptive. Parental leave for men is a quiet act of social revolution with radical implications for your family, workplace and, indeed, for gender equality as a whole.

We’re talking positive ramifications, too. Dads who take parental leave are less likely to get divorced, feel closer to their kids and, according to Swedish research, may even live a little longer. Their kids also benefit in a big way. A raft of studies have shown that babies with a highly involved father enjoy better social, emotional and cognitive development.

But the biggest impact of parental leave could be on the lives of women. Not only does it lay the groundwork for greater co-parenting and a more even distribution of domestic labour, it also has the potential to unshackle mums from their role of primary carer. When men take parental leave, it gives women the opportunity to get back into the workforce quicker, helping them to avoid the negative impacts to their career and income that motherhood can so often bring.

That’s why new research from the University of Sydney makes for bleak reading. It found that that just 0.05 per cent of paid parental leave is currently taken by men and only 25 per cent of men who are entitled to the two weeks of dad and partner leave actually take it. The Father Hood spoke to Professor Marian Baird, one of the two co-authors of the report, to find out what we can do to fix it.

The Father Hood: Viewing the Australian workplace through the prism of gender equality, do you think there’s been much of an improvement over the last decade?

Professor Marian Baird: I think there’s been a big shift in accepting that women will take parental leave. But in a way that might turn out to be a disadvantage for women, because they’re then seen as the “leave takers”, which puts them in a position where employers probably think twice about promoting them or giving them more responsibility.

The lead companies have really moved ahead on parental leave. They weren’t doing that 10 years ago, so that’s been a positive shift. For most fathers though, the shift has been tiny.

TFH: Do you think that until it’s unremarkable for men to play an equal role in domestic life, it will remain remarkable for women to have an equal role in the workforce?

MB: Yes, to a degree, but it almost has to be the other way around. I think until it’s unremarkable for men to take leave from work, we won’t see women having an equal role in the workplace. For me, the emphasis has to be on the workplace. It’s not the home. For years and years and years, a lot of sociologists have talked about gender relations being constructed in the home and we still see that argument. But there’s an American legal scholar, who does a lot of work and family research and she argues that the workplace has become the factory of gender relations.

What she’s saying is that gender relations are actually constructed in the workplace and I think that’s very true. How we treat men and women at work, flows back into society and our families. Because we all work now – including women until they have their first child – everyone is in the workplace almost in equal numbers. And that’s where we get all these expectations around who will take parental leave? The male or the female? Who will reduce their time at work and do part-time work? The male or the female? Those issues are all constructed now in the workplace, and workplace policies usually support it. Then you get the issue of workplace culture.

TFH: Yes, workplace culture is clearly a massive issue. Any suggestions about how organisations can navigate it?

MB: It’s really hard. And I would say culture and structure goes together. So in a company where the men are saying they’re not taking the leave because there’s no cover for paternity leave, the clear policy is to say: “We will provide parental leave cover for men and women. We will budget for that.” And I think this is when the rubber hits the road about commitment. Will you set aside money for someone else to step up into the role? Or employ someone else to come in and do that job? Because that is a cost. So I can see why companies will baulk at that, and why men in a managerial or supervisory positions probably do think, “If I go and take the leave, I am really putting a lot of extra work on my peers and colleagues, and I don’t want to do that.” You have to back up your policies with money basically, and with leadership.

TFH: So are you suggesting that people in those leadership positions need to role-model those changes themselves?

MB: I am talking about role modeling. Men need to be able to see that they can take leave and return to work. Because we know men worry about their career being affected by taking it. I mean, the truth is, it probably will be and I hate that. So we have to get to a point where businesses don’t penalise those people who do take leave.

So there’s a whole lot of interconnected things. It’s about establishing the budget for it and the role modelling for it, but also when those men come back to work, it’s about making sure they are seen as committed employees. Just like women have to be seen when they come back after maternity leave. And we know that doesn’t always happen, so that’s a problematic space.

TFH: So when men do take extended parental leave, the companies need to highlight and celebrate that example in order to stress that they haven’t committed career suicide.

MB: There are simple things that I’m always amazed do work. It’s about putting the case study on the website of the firm. For example: “Martin Fogarty took leave, here’s his baby – he’s come back and returned into his position. It’s all worked out.” That messaging does work in organizations. It’s almost that intangible impact. But over time that builds up and people see, “Yes, we can do that”. And more than that, they attract other men or workers who want to work in good places like that too. And people stay committed and loyal to that company. A firm or business has to be prepared to see it over, five to ten years, really.

TFH: By telling those stories on the company intranet or whatever, I suppose you’re doing two things: you’re publicising the example and you’re helping to break the taboo.

MB: Yes, you are making it a public announcement, so within the firm, people see it. But you’re also doing external branding, which can be very important to firms to attract talent.

TFH: What about on an employee level – is there any particular advice you’d give there?

MB: For regular people, their biggest concerns are security of work. We know that when people take extended periods of leave, they are a bit more vulnerable to being made redundant, or to job change or to organisational restructures. They are not visible so they get forgotten or they’re the ones who are shunted. So I think it’s really critical, if an organisation is genuine about this, they have to show that they guarantee the job security of those people. It’s not just in the legislation, you have to do it in practice. If you take leave, you will have your own job to come back to, or a job as close as possible at the same pay rate.

People need to be assured of their job security if they take their parental leave entitlement. But also they need to know they will have a career to move through and that they will be given the training opportunities or skills in whatever roles they’re doing. And I think that’s really so important for males and females.

TFH: Where do you see the workforce in another 10 years time? Are you optimistic?

MB: Cautiously optimistic. The one thing I’ve learnt is that these things take time to change. When you’re in the moment, it feels like no change is occurring often. But change is occurring, and after a period of time, there will be a groundswell. And we’ll see a shift amongst businesses where this becomes much more the norm, that men, younger men, take their leave and their parental leave. That’s the positive.

The negative side of that though, is I don’t think it’ll be evenly distributed. It will be certain sectors of the workforce who have that opportunity to take leave. So we’ll see some who have that access and entitlement, and some who don’t.

TFH: So it’ll just be the cashed-up corporates in other words…

MB: That’s right. I’m speculating a bit here, but I can also see it happening a bit at the upper and lower. At the top end, there’ll be the people who’ve got enough money and enough confidence in their own careers, so they take leave and return to work, and they can also pay for all the extra services they need. Meanwhile, at the bottom end, we might also see those men whose jobs are insecure taking the leave, especially following recessions.

TFH: Is that because they haven’t got as much to lose?

MB: Exactly. And so, they may also take the leave and say, “Well, I might as well stay at home. My wife is going to work a bit more than I do. And I’ve always wanted a chance to stay with the kids”. I think we may see more movement at those two ends. But the big group is in the middle, who neither have great career prospects, nor terribly well-paid jobs. So they can’t really afford not to work. I think that’s the group that we may see start to fall behind or feel stuck, and that they’re not getting the attention they need.

TFH: It sounds like very moderated optimism from you then.

MB: If I look back by the 10 years, we have come a long way. The number of firms that are doing more innovative things is growing, but not hugely. We also show that in the data. Certainly there’s more community awareness and discussion. Now we have to see that converted into action.