With little fanfare, a rather special event took place in Canberra last week on the subject of fatherhood. Liana Leach from ANU and Amanda Cooklin from La Trobe University quietly co-hosted a one-day forum on the importance of the role of fathers in caring for children.
For the first time, and through the foresight and efforts of these two researchers, academics, business leaders, government policymakers and interested members of the public came together to talk about dads.
Compare that to the conferences and volume of literature and research currently taking place on the role of motherhood, and the emphasis placed on working mums in current national debates.
The fact that this forum is the first of its kind in Australia says so much about the outdated notions we still harbour on the role of dads. Even as other societies are shifting their views on fatherhood, across Australia the ‘male breadwinner’ concept remains dominant.
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About 90% of Australia’s dads are employed, and 92% of this group work full-time, with only 14% working from home. Dads actually tend to work even longer hours once they have kids. Only 5% of dads work part-time, and many of these dads are actually underemployed and seeking more hours.
The tiny portion of dads bucking this trend — working flexibly or part-time, or staying at home to act as primary caretaker of their kids — are still treated as a cute novelty, not as leading the way for a new way of doing things.
We’re reinforcing to dads in this country that the best way for them to be a parent is to go work and earn a living. We are reinforcing the idea that is it normal to leave the kids with mums, grandparents and professional carer — just not dads. And dads believe these tropes.
Even if more dads these days agree fathers have a role to play in caring, actions speak louder than words. Longitudinal studies show that 25% of dads work weekends, and 56% miss family events.
Sadly, we know now how damaging these realities are for dads’ mental health and wellbeing. Some industries fare better, but the rigidity of shift work is also causing enormous disruption and heartache for dads in traditionally blue-collar roles.
Professor Lyndall Strazdins, a researcher at ANU’s School of Population Health, pointed out that we’ve been so focused on finding better ways to encourage and support mums back into the workforce that we’ve done very little to help dads escape long-hours and stringent work schedules, do more caring and reconnect with their families.
About 240,000 dads are having kids each year. But our parental leave policies and practices reflect gendered notions of work and caring. We give months to mums and days to dads. We focus more on the first 12 months of a baby’s life than all the subsequent years where so much development occurs.
Dads are shackled with the ‘secondary caregiver’ label. The Federal Government’s ‘Dad and Partner Pay’ is two weeks at minimum wage. Sadly, only 33% of eligible dads take the Dad and Partner Pay. The secondary carer leave offered at most large private organisations is no better either, at 7.3 days on average.
We need to scrap the arbitrary notion of primary and secondary caregivers, and explicitly acknowledge that dads have every right to be, and are just as capable of being, great parents as mums.
So what do we do now?
The forum itself was a statement of ambition — a quorum intent on challenging these antiquated, unhelpful notions of fatherhood. The participants discussed and searched for a better way to help dads immerse themselves in their kids’ lives while holding on to their careers. Government policy doesn’t look like it will move anytime soon. Getting sizeable change requires a long game with the active participation of all the groups represented at the forum.
There are services available for dads from the pregnancy onwards — such as SMS4Dads and Dads Group that offer advice and support networks for new dads. Some big private sector employers are leading the charge on changing gendered workplace practices. Westpac has about 75% of its dads working flexibly, and there is an emerging leadership culture that values extended parental leave for dads.
ANU has introduced new generous parental leave packages for all parents, centrally managed to ensure the policy is fairly applied to everyone. Survey work by La Trobe has been done to better understand dads’ attitudes to work and family, with more research in the pipeline.
A new exhibit called Aussie Dads is about to tour Sydney and Melbourne, promoting dads who take extended leave from work to care for their kids.
We need all of this steps forward and a whole lot more. This is going to be a change measured in inches: one household, one employer, one daycare centre, and one community at a time. It is exciting, however, to see a commitment to change across the academic, business and government spectrum.
Hopefully, in 10 years, the idea that a dad might take six months off to care for a new baby or work part-time to spend more days with their kids will be totally normal and uninteresting. Until then, we all need to work towards making that the reality.
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