“Hands down it was the best time of my life, hard, but it was bloody fun”, says Mitch. His face lights up recounting days spent with his two sons, now aged two and four.
Reflecting on a typical day on parental leave, he says “My day has flown; I went to the shops. You aim for one outing”.
Dr Ashlee Borgkvist researches flexible work and fathers within the ‘Safe Relationships and Communities Research Group’ at the University of South Australia. In 2021 she published a paper from her PhD research on fathers and flexible working arrangements. She found it’s only two per cent of fathers that take any paid parental leave (PPL) at all.
Mitch works for professional services firm EY Australia, he says “What do guys get, like two weeks minimum wage. You look at it and you think I’d really rather work for my actual wage. I had access to 16 weeks as primary carer, then on top of that, three weeks concurrent”.
When talking to his friends about PPL Mitch says, “they’re jealous when I got to take it. They would have all taken it in a heartbeat”.
Professor Andrew Scott, convenor of the Australia Institute’s Nordic Policy Centre aims to explore the policy lessons that Australia can learn from the Nordic nations. He is a PPL advocate and says “We [Australia] sort of were close to progress, at least we finally got a maternity leave scheme first in 2011, then we got two weeks dad and partner pay. That should have continued up incrementally”.
“Tony Abbott actually went to two elections proposing a six-month paid parental leave policy at the replacement wage, which is now what Labor policy is.” says Professor Scott.
Instead, when elected in 2013, Abbott accused new mothers of being fraudsters for trying to piece together a living wage. His government introduced the term ‘double dipping’.
Asked whether the pandemic is likely to shift public policy for fathers Professor Scott says, “It’s probably a help, because such a dramatic shift, sudden change, in the way we all live and work, does open up more scope for re-evaluation. What effect has this had on men, who have suddenly been working more from home and doing home-schooling or been in an environment where home-schooling has been going on? Has it changed their values? Maybe they’ve enjoyed life more, in some ways. They’re getting to see their kids more, and maybe it’s made them think about the work situation”.
In the Grattan Institute report, “Dad days: how more gender-equal parental leave would improve the lives of Australian families”, a strong case is made for improving PPL for fathers. The Institute recommends an additional six-weeks PPL on top of the current government policy of 20-weeks. Their recommendation draws on the Nordic policies the Australia Institute promotes, where fathers have access to extended leave at a replacement wage.
David is a father of two children aged three and one. He works for one of the largest resource businesses in the world. He says, “I’ve had a number of conversations with some of the younger people in my team, about what a great place it is to work because if you’re thinking of having kids you can take this leave opportunity”.
His employer BHP provides up to 18 weeks in total, he says “most dads take a couple of weeks at the birth of their child then you can take a further 16 weeks when you become the primary carer”.
David values the time he spent on PPL with his second child, he says “having me become the primary carer was actually huge because yeah I started getting her to sleep and it was a really good bonding experience, for me and her, because we didn’t really have that close experience up until then”.
Andrew has two children, now aged eight and five. He works for National Australia Bank (NAB). He says when his son was born, “I took three weeks from the day before he was born, work gave you two weeks of parental leave and I availed of the government leave for a week”.
When his daughter was born in 2016 NAB had a new PPL policy. “I took two weeks when she was born, then a further 11 weeks when she was nine or 10 months old which is when my wife returned to work part-time”.
Andrew says, “I’m conscious of how incredibility lucky I am to get it. It was an amazing experience I look back on fondly, and there were periods when my eldest was home from childcare, so I got extra time with him too. It was a better experience overall.”
Rachel’s daughter was a one-year-old when she and her husband moved back to his birthplace outside Oslo. In Norway mums gets seven months paid leave, fathers can take over and get three months full time paid leave, all up it’s 10 months. “They try and get a year off then they put them into daycare,” says Rachel.
When Rachel’s daughter was born in Australia her husband had minimal leave. “Two weeks is not long enough, especially for your first one. You don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know how the birth is going to go. What if something happens? My husband had to ask for an extra week because there was stuff going on and I couldn’t be alone”, Rachel says.
“I think it’s based on giving equal opportunity for the mother to work if they want to. From what I’ve seen, fathers are generally more involved than what I’ve seen with some of my friends [in Australia]. The norm in Norway is that women take the first bit and men take the next bit off, it’s just what’s done, and they just follow” she says.
The “Dad Days” paper by the Grattan Institute claims a targeted PPL policy could deliver, “greater parental satisfaction, improvements in child development, higher rates of workforce participation, and greater economic security for women”.
The fathers interviewed for this article said their PPL meant an earlier return to work for their female partners and a later start to childcare for their children. David says, “it’s more of an easing in, a one-year-old is quite young still, so I think it was nicer to have somebody they know looking after them that whole time”.
Mitch says, “you just get to see your kids grow up and change, and kind of just their little traits. It helps you be a better dad because you know what they like, how they connect. You know that their tantrum isn’t necessarily them. If you’re working, you come home and I struggled with this. You’ll always do bath time, you get home from work at 5.30 pm-6.00 pm. They go to bed at seven. Six to seven is s—, there’s nothing redeeming about that. Your interaction was 40 minutes of them screaming at you. And that’s not who they are.”
When his wife returned to work after 12 months leave, Mitch says “I subbed in, and the roles were reversed for three months”.
David says, “If I hadn’t had that time off it would have been straight into childcare and that might have affected the decision about my wife going back to work or not, at that point.”
Andrew says “When our eldest was born, I reckon she took 12 months or a bit longer. This time she went to work slightly earlier, that was influenced by the condition that after 12 months, my leave would not be available”.
Dr Borgkvist from UniSA says Nordic public policy has, “contributed to a cultural shift in expectations around what is fathering, what’s involved in fathering. I think that could really have an impact here in Australia if we did have a father’s quota in our paid parental leave policy”.
“The policy that was brought in around the 1990s and early 2000s under Howard really encouraged families to have a traditional split in the way they worked and cared. We still have a stringent split,” she says.
In Australia, it is the private sector leading the way. The PPL policies on offer for the dads interviewed is equal for men and women at their organisations.
Mitch says the PPL policy at EY was not always embraced by dads. He says “I think if you went back, five to eight years ago, lots of males in the organisation didn’t take it. Because there was certainly a stigma around it, if you take it, you won’t get your promotion or your progression. Despite messaging from management, people might have thought it was lip service. But I’ve seen it being proven out. Even if you take it, it doesn’t hold you back” says Mitch.
This generational shift is also evident at BHP says David. “It’s slowly changing. When I first started there was kind of a culture that parental leave for dads was available, but it wasn’t really taken. Whereas I think there’s been a few key people in the team who have taken it and they’ve kind of made it ok,” he says.
At NAB Andrew says as soon as PPL was introduced, it was taken up. “Straight away, it was openly talked about. It was applauded, it was huge. It was a pretty big deal. I saw plenty of people taking it. In my experience, it was absolutely supported. You know lots of people take it, it’s kind of the thing now. You just expect if you are the father, you’re just going to take the leave”.
Dr Borgkvist says the culture of an organisation influences whether dads feel confident in asking for and taking parental leave. She says, “There has to be all of the right factors working together”.
“Those day-to-day decisions are much harder when there are consequences for the individual. In trying to challenge the status quo potentially he doesn’t have the career progression he wants, or potentially he loses his job or gets ostracised, or he gets isolated within his workplace. The consequences of those day-to-day decisions can be very difficult to deal with for an individual” Dr Borgkvist says.
The dads interviewed expressed concern that not all dads have equal opportunities to be around in their children’s early years. From his experience working with contractors at BHP David says, “I think it’s trending in the right direction, but I think it’s really pocketed. Where some businesses and some people get fantastic benefits and the ability to go and do that, and others get zero”.
Andrew says “Just because I happen to work for a big corporate, that shouldn’t be the reason why I get this opportunity. Everybody should get it. I think children would benefit from it too. It’s about the children and bonding with their families”.
Mitch says, “How do you get private businesses to do it? I know some really big privately owned businesses, in particularly male-dominated industries, who are horrific at it, for both men and women”.
Professor Scott says in Nordic countries, “various leave policies are funded partly by government and partly by employers. Employers see the benefit in retaining skilled, experienced and valuable employees, who return to work appreciative of having been given proper consideration at the crucial time in their lives when they become parents”.
He says in Australia, “paternity leave is particularly low, two weeks, and what’s interesting in the Nordic countries is that they keep extending it. It’s gone from two months in Sweden, minimum paternity leave for fathers to three months. Finland and Iceland in the last 12 months have increased paternity leave. So, Australia is falling further behind in that respect”.
Creating a culture that honours the passage to fatherhood while also retaining valued talent has been a successful strategy for leading employers in Australia. The dads interviewed all talked about how the PPL policies were an incentive for remaining with their employer.
Mitch says, “You are certainly a proponent of the company, particularly with the younger guys coming through. You’re like well, it’s pretty good, hang around. In the last 4 years, I’ve had 7 months of paid leave. If you are thinking of going somewhere else, well, hang in a few years and get that, then you can think about going and by that time you’re like ‘I’m pretty settled’”.
In 2021 The Parenthood, a movement advocating for public policy that supports parents and carers headed up by Executive Director Georgie Dent, published their report ‘Making Australia the best place in the world to be a parent’. Four key changes to Australia’s public policy for parents are recommended including, “a parental leave scheme that provides one year of leave to be equally shared between both parents”.
Modelling for The Parenthood report claims that investment in PPL, early childhood education and care, parental health, and flexible work, would lead to between a two to four per cent increase in gross domestic product (GDP).
Professor Scott says, “Finland’s extension of paternity leave has been done with evidence showing how much men benefit emotionally; they enjoy life more. They’re surprised at how much they enjoy being involved with their kids”.
The Morrison Government and Albanese led Opposition appear unconvinced by the Nordic examples, and the research presented by advocates including The Parenthood and Grattan Institute. Increases to PPL for fathers don’t appear in policy papers for either party. Professor Scott says, “The ALP adopted the policy six months at full wage (replacement wage) [for primary carers] in 2020, but they haven’t put it forward as a costed election policy yet”.
The policy focus for parents leading up to the 2022 federal election for Liberal and Labor is childcare. Both sides have committed to improvements to the Child Care Subsidy, increasing subsidies up to 90 per cent for some families after 30 June 2022. The $10,560 cap on Child Care Subsidies will also be removed.
Professor Scott has some reservations about this approach, “the privatised nature of childcare and the subsidy system, I think is a problem”.
He says, “there is evidence of how good community and not for profit childcare is from the Nordic countries, and how it might actually be cheaper for governments to actually fund or provide childcare directly rather than subsidise private providers”.
Professor Scott says the benefits of PPL are not only economic. He says an equal division of parental care has the advantage of offering, “positive development outcomes for children; increased quality of relationships between parents and their children; less parental conflict; and health gains for fathers”.
The Parenthood launched their federal election campaign #ParentsUp in late 2021. They want one year of PPL, to be shared between parents. They propose a replacement wage, rather than the minimum wage currently offered. The Nordic examples show fathers don’t take leave if it means reductions to their family’s income.
Professor Scott says, “you can make a strong case that Australia is falling further behind in paternity leave. We’re falling behind the global leaders and this is a real problem for us. If we’re serious about gender equality, then this is something we need to fix urgently”.