People & Human Resources

Small business owners have been overlooked in the paid parental leave debate — and this needs to change

Angela Priestley /

Royal Commission

Kate Carnell, small business ombudsman. Source: Supplied.

When Kate Carnell gave birth to her first baby a week early, she hadn’t yet managed to put in a replacement at the business she ran.

“So I got dressed and went and opened the pharmacy,” she said.

Vivo Café owner and Sydney City Councillor Angela Vithoulkas recalled how when her own mother’s waters broke while she was working behind the counter of the café, she simply kept going.

“Stuff happens in small business, including having a baby!” Angela said.

Both women made the comments on Angela’s podcast The Brew, in the context of sharing how female small business owners have been overlooked in the paid parental leave debate, given such women can’t just take an uninterrupted break from work when having a baby.

Currently, if you’re on the government paid parental leave scheme and something happens in your business requiring you to go back to work for a few days, the rest of your paid leave is automatically cancelled.

This has seen a number of women caught out on the scheme, with some looking to return to their businesses during a busy stint finding that they’re unable to access the remainder of their paid leave. “We need legislation that is small business friendly and allows women who have babies and who own businesses to have their 18 weeks over a 12 month period.”

Right now women are starting businesses in greater numbers than men, with more than 900,000 self-employed Australians now female — and tens of thousands of them are pregnant at any one time.

Taking 18 weeks paid leave in one chunk may work for those employed in large corporates, but it’s not ideal for a small business owner, who may not have somebody available to take over his or her role, and may find they simply can’t stop working during certain times of the year (such as the busy Christmas period).

Paid parental leave is one issue Carnell is aiming to address in her role as the Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, which she describes as involving “justice for small business”. She’s also looking to address payment terms and how the banks treat small businesses.

Carnell also spoke with Vithoulkas about her life and career to date, including how her treatment for anorexia as a teenager shaped her world view and ignited her passion for raising the awareness of mental health issues.

Carnell bought her first pharmacy at age 25 and spent the next 20 years running small businesses. She went on to lead a number of associations before going into politics, and then later returning to head up more large organisations, including beyondblue.

She also opened up about her time leading a minority government with the Canberra Liberals, noting that despite an initial “dream run” on her way to the top, it became a challenging period, especially following the 1997 Royal Canberra Hospital implosion that tragically killed a 12-year-old girl.

“You lead things, you take the heat. You accept that you’re at the top and when there’s someone to blame that’s a fair thing to expect that person to take the fall,” she said.

“I decided it was best to leave to take the mud with me,” added Carnell on her decision to leave a couple of years later, just as the minority government was getting ‘shaky’.

“At the end of the day, I gave it my best shot.”

Listen to the full conversation on The Brew

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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