Until 2010, Australia was one of just two countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development without a national paid parental leave scheme.
But more than a decade later, that policy no longer meets the diverse needs of many families.
Under Australia’s public policy, “primary carers” were eligible for 18 weeks of leave while “dads and partners” could take two weeks, paid at the minimum wage, provided they were on unpaid leave.
These two provisions were combined in the last federal budget, allowing families to choose how they split and share the leave, a win for single parents.
While on the face of it this should encourage more equal sharing of care by parents, there’s a strong chance this move will further entrench inequalities because it enables men to transfer their leave to women.
As several experts have identified, cultural norms around women as caregivers, and the reality that women earn less than men in most households, are likely to lead to women taking the full 20 weeks of leave.
Policies built on the assumption that women are primary carers create structural barriers to their workforce participation, ability to pursue career opportunities, earn more and save for retirement.
Australia’s policy reinforces disadvantages for women at work, at home and in society.
Paid parental leave supports critical public health benefits, giving women a chance to recover from giving birth, bond with their children and develop a breastfeeding pattern, which has positive outcomes for child health.
But policies that don’t incentivise sharing of care mean other parents miss out on the critical chance to bond with their children and set shared care and housework habits that will last a lifetime.
Many larger businesses, including Telstra, Swinburne University and Norton Rose Fulbright, recognise the value more equitable paid parental leave can bring to workplaces and are making the change.
We call on the next parliament to move towards six months of gender-neutral paid parental leave to encourage shared care by both parents.
We would also like to see a commitment to addressing stigma and normalising men taking parental leave to be actively involved in their children’s lives, which our research shows they benefit from.
These reforms must be backed up by high quality, accessible and affordable childcare that further enables women to participate in the workforce and thrive at work.
Doing so requires shifting our collective view of parenting leave from a career-breaking move to a deeply important period for all parents to bond with their children during the most critical stage of their lives.
Employers play a crucial role in shaking up policy design to bridge the gap between what is offered to Australian parents and international best practices.
Iceland’s move to extend leave periods for both parents and drastically cut transferable leave has led more fathers taking more leave in the first few months of becoming parents.
In the first year after QBE Insurance began offering 12-weeks paid parental leave to every new parent, with two weeks taken after their child’s birth and then a set number of days per week over subsequent months, it experienced a 300 per cent increase in men taking leave.
Mainstreaming caring and flexibility for men and women removes career barriers, makes businesses more gender equal and supports workforce mental health which drives performance.
Reforms can trigger the cultural change that enables fathers to better understand caregiving by promoting shared care and creating more equal relationships that allow kids to see their parents in different roles.
Additional leave provisions might cost the government more in the short term but would increase household incomes and support economic growth by keeping women at work and solving nationwide staff shortages.
Engaging women in paid work at the same rate as men would supply most of the 1.2 million workers the National Skills Commission estimates Australia needs by 2026 and halving the workforce participation gap between men and women would fill record high job vacancies.
It would also be a win for small and medium-sized businesses, which employ two out of every three Australians but are less able to resource equal paid parental leave.
It’s easy to see how better paid parental leave could make us all winners.