For gender equity at work, we need gender equity at home
In Australia in the last 50 years there has been transformative change in the way that women live their lives, however the impact has been less significant for men. When a woman has a baby, workplaces and society generally expect that she will be the primary caregiver. The flip side of this assumption is that men who become parents will have a partner who is the primary caregiver.
This norm, which is generally unspoken, continues right through from babyhood into the school years. Who looks after the sick child, who volunteers at tuckshop, who carries the burden of arranging the after-school activities/care?
These days workplaces expect to accommodate women who are parents. This flexibility comes at a cost and there is an abundance of data about the financial impact of being a mother. However, this norm also impacts on fathers who would like to be equal or primary caregivers. There are individual, cultural and systemic barriers that prevent fathers from seeking parental leave or flexible work arrangements.
The obvious barrier for many families is financial and this is a vicious cycle. The longer that the mother is a non-fulltime employee (through leave or part-time work), the less her chances of promotion or career advancement. The disparity between the incomes of the parents grows greater over time especially if these is a second or subsequent child. The question of whose job and career takes precedence becomes a no-brainer when there is gaping income disparity between the parents. The family simply cannot afford the father to take leave or work flexibly.
The issue of men’s participation in parenting was the subject of a compelling essay by Annabel Crabb the Quarterly Essay 75 2019 (“Men at Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap”). Anyone who has raised or is currently raising a family this essay will appreciate the insightful analysis and wonder why this important topic is not a higher priority in our public discourse. Ms Crabb argues that we need to change our approach to men at work to achieve more equitable outcomes for men and women.
On 15 February 2021, Zali Steggall moved a motion outlining the need for a comprehensive reform of Australian parenting policies. One of the key features is a call on the federal government to extend paid parental leave from 18 weeks to 52 weeks to be shared by both parents.
Ms Steggall pointed out that paid parental leave in Australia is granted to one parent, the primary caregiver, whereas in other OECD countries it can be shared. She argued that:
“…improving participation in unpaid work in households and creating an appreciation of the work involved in raising a child. It will also provide primary carers with the opportunity to return to their careers sooner and more sustainably”.
Ms Steggall’s motion in the Federal Parliament barely made the press recently, especially in the wake of alleged criminal conduct in Parliament House.
There are too few voices currently “choosing to challenge” the status quo. Until this changes it will be difficult to reach more equitable outcomes for both women and men at work.