Parents Left in the Lurch

Parental leave – or maternity leave, as we tiresomely insist on thinking about it – is back in the news. Australia’s National Employment Standards now includes the right of workers to request 12 months of unpaid parental leave in addition to the year to which they are already entitled. A right to request flexible working arrangements to care for a child under school age is also part of the “Fair Work” mix.

Fair? Work? In fact, the new provisions aren’t fair to anyone – not mothers, fathers or children – and they may reduce even further the tenuous attachment Australian mothers have to the workforce. The essential conundrum of parenthood can be summed up simply as this: working parents of young children want to be in two places at once. They want to be caring for their children, and they want (and in most cases need) to be in paid work.

This is not, at its core, a gender problem. Young Australian women now participate in the workforce at the same rate as men and have similar aspirations with regard to earnings and careers. While mothers bear the brunt of pregnancy and childbirth, once the cord is cut, fathers, grandparents and other relatives – not to mention trained child-care workers – are all capable of providing quality care for children.

In countries committed to equality between the sexes, the parenthood conundrum is articulated in gender-neutral ways. When Sweden’s generous parental leave provisions were taken up mostly by mothers, a portion was designated for dads on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. This bolstered women’s attachment to the workforce and freed men to take the time they said they wanted to care for their children, without losing points with the boss.

Long stretches away from work are bad for employees and despised by employers. Jobs are restructured out of existence, and the lifetime earnings and superannuation savings of absent workers take a hit from which they never recover. It may not be discrimination, but women’s lack of hours and experience relative to men – largely due to “career interruptions” caused by motherhood – account for the 17 per cent less that Australian women earn on average compared with men.

Men and children also miss out when women are the only ones to withdraw from paid employment to shoulder the parenting load. Australian men consistently cite work as a barrier to greater involvement with their children, while reports on generation Y men suggest they see sharing the housework and child care as a moral obligation. Australian children report missing their largely absent fathers, while research confirms that the presence of a loving and nurturing dad is as important for a child’s happiness, wellbeing, and social and academic success as having a loving and nurturing mother.

The upshot of all this is that in the absence of carrots and sticks to encourage men to step up and women to step out, it will be Australian mothers who are most likely to take up the Government’s grant of an additional year of unpaid leave, and to wear the associated financial and work-related consequences.

The same can be said about the right to request flexible work arrangements. Part-time and flexible hours are an essential but imperfect tool for solving the parenthood conundrum, yet some workplaces continue to expect full-time hours from workers on part-time pay, and the reduced visibility or productivity of the flexible workers often means they are overlooked for promotion.

Again the problem is equality. If parents of both genders use flexible work conditions, then the associated costs will fall to both. But if only mothers are demanding such arrangements, then they become the group some employers would prefer to avoid hiring, or will choose to marginalise on the aptly named “mummy-track”, while fathers and childless workers get away scot-free.

The Government’s new employment standards are not just blind to persistent inequalities of gender, but to social class as well. As Labor knows, bearing and raising children is expensive. Add to this the soaring cost of housing, and few Australians have the luxury of having one parent not working for years at a time. Any government serious about offering the bulk of Australian parents real opportunities to care for their children would ensure that parental leave was paid.

Paid parental leave has been a political football for too long. Last month the National Civic Council took Tony Abbott to task for supporting maternity (not parental) leave, which it sees as part of a feminist conspiracy “to reward women who make feminist-approved lifestyle choices”. Conservative Christians are able to influence Labor as well – the party dropped its commitment to paid maternity leave from its platform before the last election, then flipped the issue to the neo-liberal Productivity Commission to rule on when it won the election.

We need to set the squealing of minorities aside and put the financial, social and emotional needs of the majority of Australian mothers, fathers and children first.

Australian mums and dads need, want and have a right to employment and to share the work of looking after their children. Work and care must be shared and parental leave must be paid. It really is as simple as that.

Publication history

Parents Left in the Lurch  The Sydney Morning Herald