Last month the Grattan Institute called for something that is long overdue in Australia: increased government paid paternity leave as well as maternity leave.
Women continue to be held back by a stubborn gender pay gap and fewer opportunities for promotion, and that is largely due to how caregiving is managed within households. Women have also taken on the lion’s share of caregiving and home schooling during the pandemic.
While it’s very important to talk about issues affecting women, we can’t do this in a silo. If we want to change outcomes for women, we also need to change the expectations on men. Most men and fathers still feel pressure to be the ‘breadwinners’; not necessarily by their partners, but by a system that refuses to budge, and by businesses and leaders in how they’re expected to behave, perform and be present at work.
Increasing government paid paternity leave is a great way to start bridging that gap.
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The Grattan Institute’s modelling showed that upping the scheme to 26 weeks, giving each parent six weeks of leave, and another 12 weeks that they can split between the two of them, would boost the economy by $900 million and improve life satisfaction among dads. It would also encourage increased empathy between women and men in their relationships, while reducing the stigma that it’s women who could leave at any time to have kids.
Having kids is part of life. If employees are well supported through this, their loyalty will repay the business far beyond what it costs to allow for flexible jobs.
Until this scheme is introduced (and let’s hope it is), there are other ways companies can improve equality by focusing on caregivers — dads in particular.
Build leeway for caregiving into the workday
Talk to all staff, not just mothers or part-time staff, about their work/life balance, and start creating a model that builds leeway for caregiving into the workday.
Whether employees are remote or office based, allowing for flexibility in hours is important. Avoid meetings at 8.30am or 3pm when kids need to be dropped and collected from school, encourage people to set flex hours that suit them, and make it a company-wide practice so that dads and mums both feel accepted when working around their kids’ schedules.
Talk often about career goals
Making assumptions about someone’s ambition is harmful, regardless of parenting status or gender.
Requesting time off or part-time work doesn’t mean that person wants to de-prioritise their career. It means that ambition should be nurtured through various phases of life. This could be a female employee who would like to switch caregiving roles with their partner and take on more work, but doesn’t feel like the company would give them a look in.
Conversely, a dad may feel they’re missing out on seeing their children grow up, and would like to scale back without the fear of jeopardising his career. I know how important it has been in my career to have a husband who was prepared to take on a bigger caregiving role so that I could remain in senior leadership.
Equally important has been working for a company that allows me to work flexibly and remotely so I can still feel connected to my family. Having career goal setting and planning in place for all employees, no matter their life or goals, as well as having access to content and technologies to learn new skills for both personal and professional growth is vital for employee engagement, retention and the company — ensuring potential leaders and high performers make it through the cracks.
Show trust in your employees
Measure people’s performance, not their time clock, particularly remote employees.
Don’t micro-manage their days; instead, set clear expectations around the role, and how you can help them to meet these. Empower people to manage themselves, and they will place equal faith in the business.
Make it okay to be sick
Make sure fathers feel they can take carers leave when their children are unwell. If a dad comes into work and says their child is sick and home with mum, check in. Do they not feel they can take the time away?
Find out if it’s often the mother taking time to care for sick kids. If that’s the case, start an open conversation encouraging all employees to make use of their benefits.
Men who have always been in full-time jobs and ‘climbing’ the ladder without ever taking time off often won’t feel secure talking about being overloaded at work. There’s a good chance that stress gets transferred to their partners who pick up more domestic work so they can work longer hours to compensate.
Talk to all employees about what can reasonably be done in regular workday, set expectations around productivity based on this, and introduce a company-wide policy to cease all non-urgent communication out of hours.
Improving gender equality at work requires both sides to come together. That is simply not possible when the experience of mothers and fathers at work is so different. Until we see the government address this through fairer paid parental leave, the responsibility lies with organisations to take the lead and create an environment where all employees, including dads, are supported to lead more balanced lives.