It wasn’t until the 1970s that life for working mothers in Australia was made easier. It’s time we do the same for fathers.
Google ‘Jacinda Ardern mother’ and you’ll be hit with headlines like ‘Jacinda Ardern on her role as a mother and Prime Minister’ and ‘Jacinda Ardern was just asked if she feels “guilty” for being a working mother’. Google ‘Scott Morrison father’ and you’ll find a few happy snaps of the Prime Minister embracing his children and an article titled ‘The surprising things you didn’t know about Australia’s 30th Prime Minister’. Mention of his children is 4th in a list of 20, underneath information about where he grew up, when he entered politics and how old he was when he met his wife.
This national disinterest in Morrison’s parental obligations, paired with an international obsession with Ardern’s ability to balance her job and parenting duties, struck political journalist Annabel Crabb as interesting. Why are women in the workforce, especially those in the public spotlight, asked to justify the minutiae of how they manage their obligations as both a parent and an employee, while men aren’t?
Crabb, who will be speaking at AHRI’s International Women’s Day breakfast next month, put the question to Morrison, as well as treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Side note: the pair are the first PM/treasurer combo to both have young children since the mid-70s.
AHRI members can purchase tickets to events at a discounted rate. This is just one of the many benefits of an AHRI membership. Find how how you can become a member today.
“They were both enthusiastic to answer the question,” Crabb told HRM. “They are both conscious of the importance of parents and how difficult it is for the families of politicians. But it did really strike me that they were super rusty, or that they hadn’t been asked the question much before. If their wives had been in politics, they would have been asked every second day.”
Crabb unpacks this disparity around parental and workplace obligations in the 75th Quarterly Essay, Men at Work. Writing off the back of the momentum of her 2014 book The Wife Drought – which explored the vastly different experiences of men and women in the workforce – Crabb comes at the issue from a different angle this time around.
“Our predisposition in this general space is to look at what happens to women at work and gender pay gaps,” she says. “There are two sides to every coin. We don’t spend enough time looking at men and what forces might be active and powerful on them which have an impact on the very skewed division of domestic labor that’s still a feature of the Australian landscape.”
Historically, when children enter the scene women will drastically change the way they work. Men, historically, do not. Crabb cites research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies which indicated that 60 per cent of fathers didn’t use any kind of flexible leave to manage the demands of childcare, but she’s quick to clarify that she’s not here to chastise men for not doing enough. Instead, she’s taking a magnifying glass to the institutional barriers that prevent them from taking a more active parenting role.
Inviting men into the conversation
I’ve read other takes on the expectations placed on working mothers, but no one quite captures this fraught topic with the warmth and humour of Crabb. After writing The Wife Drought, Crabb says she was approached by many women eager to discuss the ideas she raised. This time around, she wanted to do it for the blokes and make sure they felt invited to the conversation. And that’s exactly what’s happened.
Crabb recalls a recent speaking gig at the Melbourne Press Club to promote the essay. These events are usually dominated by women, she notes, but this time it was packed out with men, many of who were on parental leave and brought their babies along with them.
“The sight of a couple of boofy blokes up the back jiggling their little babies on their knees was a really nice thing to see. The whole experience has confirmed my suspicion that there are heaps of men who would like to do things a bit differently but have been a bit worried about asking.”
It’s likely that so many men have engaged in this essay because Crabb isn’t pointing any fingers. She’s acting as an advocate for women and men, and asking readers to challenge their traditional ways of thinking.
“If you go into [these conversations] assuming men aren’t doing more housework [or childcare] because they are lazy/opportunistic/bastards/tin-eared/negligent, then you’re already starting off the discussion on a hostile footing,” she says.
These conversations are often centred around the wage gap and the physical and emotional labour that women pour into work and family in order to keep the wheels turning. While these are most definitely important topics to address, Crabb says it would be easy to “get very snippy about that, but it doesn’t really make sense to complain until you understand what the underlying contributing factors are to the systems and patterns of Australian behaviour.”
“The whole experience has confirmed my suspicion that there are heaps of men who would like to do things a bit differently but have been a bit worried about asking.”
Are we discounting blokes’ interest?
Some people would argue that men simply don’t want to be around during those early childcare days.
In an interview with the ABC’s Richard Fidler discussing her essay, Fidler jokingly refers to this as men sneakily trying to avoid ‘arsenic hour’ or, as Crabb puts it, “that excellent juncture where the juvenile and the adult stores of patience expire within fifteen minutes of each other”.
Crabb even cites research suggesting that after the birth of their first child, men spend up to five more hours at work per week. While this amuses Crabb, she’s not entirely sure that it’s enough to conclude that men simply aren’t interested. In fact, she draws on other research which suggests the exact opposite.
It says that fathers, millennial fathers in particular, feel trapped by the expectations placed on them by their employers. Crabb says this includes pressure “to be breadwinners, to be ideal employees, to not work part-time”. Those kinds of pressures are very powerful.
She’s not arguing for a second that there would be some men who’d be thrilled to escape “the mess and confusion of domestic life” – I’m sure many women feel the same – she’s just suggesting that we stop making sweeping generalisations about what fathers do and don’t want.
Flexism against men
Flexism is alive and well in our workplaces. Women might not be great at asking for more money or responsibility, says Crabb, but we’ve honed the art of asking for flexible hours – mainly because it’s expected of us come motherhood – but men still struggle.
“The evidence suggests they’re about twice as likely to be refused when they do ask for it, which means that their hesitation is a rational one,” says Crabb.
Of the organisations and researchers that Crabb spoke to for her essay, she came across a few interesting pieces of advice for combatting flexism against men.
Men will look to other men in their organisation as an example, she says, so it’s not enough to spell out your parental leave/flexible work policy in a “big shiny HR policy”. She suggests HR professionals share the stories of other men, especially senior men, who’ve taken leave and let them lead by example; give men constant, reinforced permission to step away from work to spend time with their children.
You can read HRM’s previous article on flexism against men to see an example of an organisation that’s doing just this.
Another suggestion Crabb makes is to take note of your office layout.
“Environments where you’ve got everybody sitting in the same spot every day can create ‘the eyes of judgment’ where someone walks in at 9:30 and every eye is on them. It’s about intelligently redesigning your work space so people feel not only legally entitled to work flexibly, but also that they’re given permission to do that.”
By focusing on employee output, instead of the amount of time they spend sat at their desk, Crabb says you’ll end up with “an employee who is less likely to leave, more engaged in the workplace, more likely to recommend that workplace to others, which in a competitive market is absolute gold.”
Where to from here, Australia?
As you might expect in an essay like hers, Crabb included a section where she was “obliged to talk about Scandinavia” – those countries that we hold a torch to when it comes to progressive workplace policies.
She touched on the Icelandic government’s introduction of a nine month paid parental leave scheme for parents, three of which must be taken by the father, which saw the uptake of leave for fathers go from “an almost-negligent rate” of close to zero per cent in 1996 to around 90 per cent in 2006.
While Aussie parents might long for a deal like this, Crabb doesn’t think we can copy paste such a policy here.
“I don’t think that our populace would really cop a huge expensive European-style parental leave; full pay at your existing salary. If you want proof of that, look to what happened when Tony Abbott advocated for a parental leave scheme or maternity leave scheme paid at existing salaries. It really did not fly,” says Crabb.
Instead, she thinks change will be driven partially by the private sector, which we’re already seeing with some larger organisations that are offering more than the standard two weeks allocated by the government to ‘secondary’ carers.
“I would also love to see the minimal paid parental leave scheme changed to reflect both parents. If I had double the budget for that scheme, I would say that both parents, if there are two parents involved, should be entitled to the scheme,” says Crabb.
Both parents are navigating new waters at the arrival of their first child and Crabb says it’s important they both feel competent and like they’re part of a team, as this leads to a far better connection to the child over the course of its life. Not only this, it leads to a more equal division of domestic labour and helps mothers to get back into the workforce.
Crabb is realistic about how something like this plays out in real life. She’s not suggesting that we should mandate a 50/50 split between parents and she acknowledges that it sometimes makes more sense for the father to work while the mother stays home. What she wants to highlight is the conversation that leads us to that point. Are our employers approaching soon to be fathers and asking them if they’d like to change their hours? And if not, why not?
An edited version of this article appeared in the February 2020 edition of HRM magazine.