Inaction on paid parental leave slows economic progress for women, research finds

paid parental leave

Continuing imbalance in paid parental leave, and inaction from the government, is only exacerbating the economic inequality between men and women, according to new research from the University of Sydney.

A report, by University of Sydney Business School professor Marian Baird and associate professor Myra Hamilton, found that offering more opportunities for fathers and secondary carers to avail of paid parental leave policies would help boost women’s participation in the workforce.

Although most primary and secondary carers’ leave schemes are available to both men and women, the report pointed to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showing that some 95% of primary carer leave is taken by women, and 95% of secondary carer leave is taken by men.

“The introduction of the Australian Paid Parental Leave Act in 2010 was a giant leap forward but the basic structure of the scheme has barely changed in a decade,” co-author professor Marian Baird said in a statement.

Opening up opportunities for secondary carers, particularly fathers, represented “significant headway” at that time, she added.

But there has been very little movement since, and nothing to improve uptake. Currently, the scheme provides two weeks’ of paid leave.

In the 2018-19 financial year, just 25% of eligible secondary carers accessed the payments, the report says.

“The short duration of secondary carer leaves … emphasise the role of fathers as ‘supporters’ at the time of birth, rather than being substantially involved in the care of their children in the early years,” associate professor Myra Hamilton explained.

While spending time together as a family in the early days is important for couples and babies, “the sharing of primary care over a longer period is what will lead to more gender equitable outcomes”, she added.

The report comes less than a week after Treasurer Josh Frydenberg failed to make any adjustments to paid parental leave policies in the federal budget.

In the run up to the budget, business groups including Business Council Australia (BCA) and Chief Executive Women called for a shakeup to paid parental leave policies, including allowing parents to divide leave more evenly.

At the time, BCA chief executive Jennifer Westacott said the proposed changes would help “smooth the sharp financial cliffs in the system”, and address some of the cultural imbalances between women and men in the workplace.

While the budget did include increases to childcare subsidies for second and additional children, paid parental leave policies were conspicuously absent.

Ongoing discussions around gender equity at work have led some businesses to take it upon themselves to improve on their paid parental leave policies internally.

Retail startup Fluent Commerce, for example, offers 13 weeks for primary carers and six weeks for secondary carers.

And furniture and homewares retailer Brosa recently rolled out a new policy offering 16 weeks of paid leave to primary or secondary caregivers.

Ultimately, the report recommended introducing incentives for more fathers and partners to take primary care leave, to help stop ‘primary carer’ being automatically associated with the birth mother.

However, it also urged the government to work in consultation with employers and unions to “improve the architecture” of the original scheme to meet the needs of modern working parents.

“Policies encouraging use by fathers must also be accompanied by changes to the normative climate in workplaces and communities that promote and enable the use of paid primary carer leave by men,” it said.

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