One of my first experiences of motherhood was the government telling me I should be at home with my child, not at work. As an Australian woman, if I chose to return to work after having a baby, my family would be financially punished.
The government sends this message to thousands of Australian women every year via its paid parental scheme. It provides up to 18 weeks at the national minimum wage to mothers, but not to breadwinners — only to those who stop working after the birth of their child.
To be eligible, women must have earned less than $150,000 in the previous financial year. The policy is entirely based on the woman’s income, with no consideration to the family income. And this is not about means testing — the partner of this new mother could be earning $1,000,000 and his partner would still be eligible to receive parental leave, if she stayed at home.
But what if in this modern day, a family decides that the mum, who earns over the $150,000 paid parental leave threshold and who is the higher income earner in the family, will return to work and dad will take leave with their baby? They are paid nothing. Even if dad’s income was under the $150,000 cap. That is $13,570.20, which is conditional to the woman stopping all work.
I enter the boardrooms of ASX companies every day and directors are trying to do their bit to close the gender gap. In nearly every meeting I am asked to deliver diverse shortlists for executive recruits comprised of both female and male executives and directors.
I am often asked why there aren’t more female candidates, particularly at the executive level. But I do know that creating gender equality and hitting diversity targets would be a lot easier if our government did its bit first.
I don’t know how many women would return to the workforce before their babies were 18 weeks old if this policy changed. But I do know that judgment is still rife when a mother returns to work ‘too early’. Our paid parental leave scheme has inherent gender bias which doesn’t help the matter. How many women may have thought about trying to re-enter the workforce, only to encounter a scheme that reinforces their place is at home with children rather than in the workforce?
And then there’s the effect these policies have on fathers. Men receive two weeks of dad and partner pay, and not a day more. Our government sends a clear message that fathers shouldn’t be at home with their children — a cruel discrimination that feeds into the toxic narrative that a man’s worth, and role, is to provide financially for their family.
We know diverse businesses, do better business. We know there is a gender pay gap that needs to be closed. And we know it should be up to parents to decide what is best for their families. And yet this discriminatory scheme is still in place.
If we want diverse businesses, equal pay, and for parents to have choice on who stays home with the baby, then we need the government to amend this scheme. Maybe we need a family income test instead, like the one used for the childcare subsidy assessment, but if that meant that less parents would be provided paternity leave the answer is quite simple. Remove gender from the equation and assess the income of the parent wanting to stay home with their child.
Starting a family and trying to pursue a career is hard enough for both parents, without the government legislating benefits based on presumed gender roles. Let’s help families work together to raise their children, rather than dictate who should be staying home.
This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.