Thinking radically about parental leave equality.
There’s every reason to want men’s parental leave to be a mirror of women’s parental leave. And there’s every reason to believe it will never happen.
Why we should want it
The ABS reports that, for parental leave in Australia’s non-public sector in 2016-17, women took 95 per cent of primary parental leave (taken by the main carer). Ninety-five per cent of secondary parental leave was taken by men. The ABS report states, “Primary parental leave is the type of leave most likely to affect people’s career trajectories.”
This is an understatement. A study from Denmark showed that a significant contributor to the gender wage gap is a childcare penalty. It’s interesting research that deserves to be fully read, but these charts sum up the problem nicely. Basically, having children hurts a woman’s lifetime earnings but it doesn’t hurt a man’s.
Source: Henrik Kleven et al, National Bureau of Economic Research
Studies such as this are why some believe that gender pay discrimination is basically a result of how our culture approaches childcare. But there are other reasons to support it, beyond a desire for gender equality.
Researcher and journalist Simon Hedlin, writing for Harvard JLG, links to numerous studies showing the many benefits parental leave provides fathers. Taking time off to care for your children makes men more likely to develop closer relationships with them; it’s linked with lower mortality and lower risk of alcohol related care and/or death; and it tends to reduce household conflicts.
Hedlin’s own research (referred to in the same article) shows that mothers and fathers who “exhibit a higher level of parental leave equality… tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction”. Most fascinating is this next part, where Hedlin writes, “I have found that the total number of paternity leave days taken is positively correlated with fathers’ life satisfaction. This implies that it is not just the distribution of leave days within a couple that matters, but also the absolute number of days that the father takes.”
He does note he can’t rule out that happier fathers just take more parental leave, so you’re seeing correlation and not causation. But the data is nevertheless compelling. It suggests traditional gender roles should be tossed.
“I have found that the total number of paternity leave days taken is positively correlated with fathers’ life satisfaction.”
Think about it. Happiness, health, more cohesive families and gender equality are all things our culture values and are all connected to male parental leave. So why is it still just a perk and not a cultural value itself?
We need to ask ourselves a question and be honest with the answer. As a society, is parental leave equality what we actually want?
You can tease out your attitude with hypotheticals. If you hired a man who said he wanted to take four weeks off to look after his child, how would you respond? For most I would assume this is a non-issue – four weeks is the same as their annual leave allowance anyway.
But what if they wanted to take three months off? More people would balk here. You would need to think about a temporary replacement.
Now what about six months, or even a year? Or, let’s go further, what if they wanted to take a year off, and then come back and work part-time for the foreseeable future? Some might praise their dedication to their children, but you know they would be doing long term “damage” to their career. You might even feel compelled to warn them about that.
It feels dramatic to write but it’s true: a man who wants to hurt his career like this for the sake of his children (in the way a lot of women do without question), is an activist who is challenging gender norms and actively working towards gender equality. Because go back and ask those same hypotheticals, but make the person asking for time off a pregnant woman. (If you think they’re treated the same, look at the article’s first statistic.)
Our culture wants men to be present in their children’s lives, and to help out with childcare, but it doesn’t view a man who takes on less than half the responsibility for their children as derelict. Indeed, there’s no social punishment for a man who is happily “present”, but who takes little or no time off from work. On the other end, the social rewards for fathers taking more parental leave don’t increase in line with how much they take. Anecdotally, it caps out quite quickly. Do we admire men who take a year off to take care of their children more than a man who takes two months?
Women have a mirror of this problem. A woman who is seen as less dedicated to her children tends to risk being labeled as derelict in her duty, and there is also a cap on how much we reward her dedication.
Do we want this situation to change? I imagine a lot of us do. But will it?
The evidence shows that taking primary parental leave hurts your career and lifelong earnings. So there’s a genuine, and not just perceived, disincentive for taking it. The obvious solution, it would seem, is to address the disincentive.
Now, you can’t wish it away. Like it or not taking a lot of time off work makes you less valuable as a worker – beyond the lack of productivity you’re also not upskilling, and you’re not becoming more embedded in the organisation. Progressive programs that keep parents (mostly mothers) in touch with their organisation can ameliorate but not remove the issue.
Some organisations, such as Deloitte, have brought in programs that are generous with non-gendered parental leave, and also encourage men to take it with intra-organisational support groups and modelling from male leaders. They’ve even offered a program where either parent can take up to 18 weeks of paid leave in any structure they want over the first three years’ of their child’s life.
“Taking time off to care for your children makes men more likely to develop closer relationships with them; it’s linked with lower mortality and lower risk of alcohol related care and/or death.”
This sort of policy helps a lot, and should be encouraged. But Deloitte is in more of a position to do it, they mostly hire highly skilled workers in a recruitment environment where you need to stand out from other employers. And even then, they offer about a quarter of a year. That’s not going to change things society-wide.
The truth is that organisational policies alone won’t help change things because we’re in a dilemma:
- Men can and absolutely should take as much parental leave as women
- But nobody really expects you to and there are significant earnings and career benefits for those who don’t
- The only way to prevent parents being essentially punished for taking parental leave is to have all fathers take parental leave – it evens the field
- But the more men that take it, the more advantage each individual can get by being the person who doesn’t
- The only policy that would change this would be to have an organisation insist upon parental leave and not reward those who don’t take it
- But this won’t happen because the reward isn’t explicit – it’s the natural outcome from having worked more
- And even if one organisation designed a policy that got it right, it would really just be hurting itself. It would be a lonely organisation that is actively insisting their workforce take more time off work. People would just work elsewhere to help their career.
Women have a different but similar dilemma. And it’s all wrapped up with how we think about gender.
The solution to the dilemma is as conceptually simple as it is practically complex. We need a widespread cultural change that insists that fatherhood and motherhood are essentially identical (with comparable obligations and expectations) and governmental and organisational policies that reflect this belief.
This is such a tall order it actually made me laugh to write it. The only reason to even contemplate this solution is that it would make men happier, healthier, kinder, and our society more equal. And who wants that?
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