Melanie Evans was 30 weeks pregnant when she joined ING in 2017 as the then head of retail bank.
But while getting to know her new team, she saw how different her upcoming experience of parental leave would be to one of her new male colleagues.
Evans would be taking leave as the “primary” carer. As for the man in her team who was expecting a baby around the same time, he’d be stepping in as the ‘secondary’ carer — meaning he’d receive less leave and fewer opportunities to spend time with his new baby.
It was then that Evans, appointed chief executive of ING a couple of years later in late 2020, decided to do something about it and banish the terms “primary” and “secondary carer” from the bank’s lexicon.
She examined the bank’s policy, and took the idea of changing it to their HR and diversity and inclusion teams. She reached out to other organisations for help, pulled a group of advocates together and created a presentation and business case for the executive team.
“And then it took about two seconds for the executive team to basically go ‘yep’, that’s a great idea. Let’s go!” Evans says.
So in late 2019, ING became the first bank in Australia to give both parents equal access to 14 weeks paid leave, eliminating “primary” and “secondary” labels in the process. All parents in the business for more than 12 months from then on were offered the option to take this leave all at once, or at any time within the first two years of having a new baby or adopting a child.
The results are stunning. In September last year, one year since launch, the bank reported that 40 dads had taken the time off to be with a new child, up from 10 in 2019.
But by May 2021, the number of men taking more than six weeks’ leave had increased six fold from what it was prior to the change. Evans adds they are also seeing men taking multiple periods of parental leave — not only at the start of a baby’s life, but also as their partner is returning to work. And incredibly, more men than women are now taking parental leave — impressive given ING’s workforce has a near equal gender split.
‘Not just a policy’
I spoke to Evans for the Family Friendly Workplaces podcast, an initiative of Parents at Work and UNICEF Australia asking how leaders are creating more supportive workplaces acknowledging the needs and caring responsibilities staff have outside of work.
Evans says that achieving an increase in men taking parental leave has been about more than a policy change. They particularly wanted to remove any stigma associated with men taking such leave, positioning the idea of making such requests more as something that’s expected, rather than suggested.
“When we introduced the policy, we had done the research to know it wasn’t just a policy. We had to get that behavioural change. I had to stand in a room and tell a group of males that I expected them to take their leave. You have to set that expectation,” she says.
ING also made a splash with this policy at the time of launch, signalling to other workplaces and major employers that these are the sorts of changes required to significantly shift the balance on who is doing what at home. The announcement received media coverage across both the business and mainstream press, and internationally.
As for the continued use of “primary” and “secondary” carer labels that persist in other businesses and across the community, Evans wants them challenged.
“The research says that if a parent is going to be in the child’s life for the long term, the bonding in the first few months is incredibly important,” she says.
“So why are we so obsessed with the ‘primary’ versus ‘secondary’?
“A parent is a parent. You organise your parenting and family however you want.”
“Better lives … better workplaces”
During our interview, Evans also outlined a number of other measures the firm has pursued in the interest of being more “family friendly”, including a strong flexible working approach that saw around 30% of their people working flexibly before COVID-19.
Flexible work and equality around paid parental leave need to work in tandem, says Evans, and be complemented by other initiatives such as ING specific parents and carers group.
ING also encourage parents to stay connected while taking leave through “touch down days”. These enable parents coming back to the office while on leave to be paid for any meeting or even social visit that they make with their teams.
Personally, and as a mother of two young children herself, Evans also sees it as her responsibility to be authentic and open about what she’s dealing with at home. She recalls a number of male and female role models that she saw were juggling, who had clearly made a point about the fact they had personal lives and things going on outside of work. This, she says, was encouraging to see and made her believe that having children — or having some kind of like outside of work, with or without kids — was possible, even in executive leadership.
“It’s becoming increasingly important and accepted that better lives are facilitated by better workplaces, that’s part of the deal now,” she says
Asked how she approached parental leave, given she was in senior leadership positions while doing so, Evans says she benefited from having honest conversations with her leaders and team before she left to have both of her babies.
“My first few weeks with my children were all about my children and not about my job at all. And I was very clear that I wanted to switch off and I wasn’t going to be on email or anything like that. To be frank, I disconnected from my role for a period of time.”
Like IBM’s managing director Katrina Troughton, who we also interviewed for this series, Evans is an example of someone who has taken on huge promotions and opportunities while pregnant or shortly after taking leave.
She had her first child while in a senior position at Westpac Group. Then shortly after returning from leave, found out she was pregnant with her second child — it was within days of being approached by ING.
“I met ING [about the new Head of Retail role] and then literally 3 days later I found out I was welcoming my second child, while my first child was still 10 months at the time,” she says.
“So I was like, ‘what am I doing? I’ve got a 10 month old. I’ve put my hand up for this fantastic role at this new organisation, and now I’m having my second child. Am I crazy?’”
Evans decided to immediately tell those recruiting her — meaning ING knew she was pregnant before many other people in her life. She started while in her third trimester, got to know her team, and then took five months leave before returning to work part time for a period.
The experience made her realise just how many structural issues stood in the way of women taking promotions around the time of having kids. She questioned whether a man would ever have the conversations that she had in her own head about whether or not it could be done.
But in hindsight, she saw another benefit in immediately sharing her pregnancy: that she felt she had little to lose in asking her potential new employer as many questions as needed about how she’d be supported.
“It made me feel, to some extent, in a more powerful situation, because I was really able to check in to see if I was joining a progressive organisation.”
Within a few years, Evans was appointed CEO. Clearly, she made it work. With, she says, plenty of support along the way.
This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.