Baby Leave is not a Women’s Issue

The politics are stupendous. Tony Abbott, a former employment minister who swore that paid maternity leave would become policy over the Howard government’s “dead body”, has a radical change of heart. Now Opposition Leader, he promises to introduce 26 weeks of paid parental leave in the first term of a Coalition government.

“The difference between our scheme and Labor’s … is that mothers get real time and real money,” Abbott said. “I am determined to give women a better chance in the workforce, not to make it more difficult for them.”

The announcement of the scheme, on International Women’s Day, left Labor’s delayed and paltry paid parental plan for dead, and the government casting about for lines. Witness Minister for the Status of Women Tanya Plibersek joining with the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce to lament the injustice of this “massive new tax on Australian businesses”.

Experts and industry groups were also dismayed. Australian Industry Group chief executive Heather Ridout and Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick fretted that an extended leave scheme such as Abbott’s might discourage the employment of women.

What is wrong with this picture? The same thing that has been wrong since the battle for paid leave began more than 40 years ago. We say paid parental leave, but we mean paid maternity leave. From the language to the symbolism to the fraught politics and poor policy that characterise this debate, work/life policy is crippled by the absence of men.

While Abbott’s proposal is more generous than the government’s safety net plan of 18 weeks at minimum pay, both schemes are fatally flawed. Discussed, designed and sold in the language of “mums”, they flagrantly disregard the role men should – and many want to – play in the lives of their children. By failing to talk about childcare and paid leave as something of critical importance to children, men and women, both political parties doom us to more of the same work/life crunch. More oppressed women, more dissatisfied men, more children with exhausted mums and absent dads.

Did you know that Australian men – 68 per cent in one poll – want more involvement in their children’s lives, but are impeded by work demands? Did you know that children whose fathers contribute meaningfully to their care have improved social skills, higher self-esteem and better results at school?

Do you know that children tell researchers they want to spend more time with their fathers, and no amount of additional mother-time quells that ache? Did you know that women doing most of the second-shift of childcare and housework report feeling guilty and exhausted? Those who work part-time or stay at home reduce their lifetime earnings by at least $160,000 per child, end up on the “mummy track” when they return to work and wind up with 50 per cent less superannuation than men on similar wages.

The most obvious solution to this problem continues to be overlooked – namely, that fathers and mothers share fairly the joys and burdens of paid employment and caring for their children – speaks volumes about the capacity of vested interests and entrenched social attitudes to stifle progress.

That this is the case seems particularly clear given the ease with which a gender-equity paradigm could be given effect in policy. All we need to do is this: we need to say “parental leave” and mean it. We need to follow the lead of comparable OECD countries by allocating paid parental leave entitlements to families in a way that allows them to share it, and with a use-it-or-lose-it component for dads.

Male leave must be actively encouraged in the short term because of our stubborn insistence on defining childcare and paid leave as “woman’s issues”. This has meant that despite many men wanting to care for their infants (50 per cent in one British study), they fear being ridiculed and punished as “unserious” if they do.

Use-it-or-lose-it provisions allow men to care for their children without suffering workplace repercussions, while leaving those who don’t free to knock back their entitlement.

At the start of the 21st century, the shift to a gender equity paradigm – and to serious, costed policy to match – is long overdue.

It is time for a paid leave policy that includes fathers as equal participants, and promotes the best interests of children. It is time to put an end to all the waste, not just of female talent, but of the work of past generations of feminists who raised their sons to share the earning and the caring with their partners – until backward-looking policy and rhetoric made them think again.

Repeat after me: the key to female liberation is men.

Publication history

Baby Leave is not a Women's Issue  The Age