Issues that matter to families on a daily basis, such as childcare, parental leave and flexible working arrangements, are often referred to as “women’s issues”. This focuses policy interventions solely on mothers, limiting the solutions that are possible and concealing how these issues affect dads.
As part of an ongoing research project we analysed the parental leave policies of 36 Australian public universities. We have found a number of contradictions in the way parental leave is allocated to mothers and fathers. By requiring them to nominate themselves as primary and secondary carers, the effect of this system is to perpetuate the gap between genders.
The provisions for mothers aren’t perfect, but they do offer a meaningful amount of well-paid leave for women to bond with and care for their children. Although many universities avoid using the term maternity leave, we found it has simply been replaced with “primary carer”. The terms “primary and secondary carers” appear less gendered but are effectively proxy categorisations for the traditional mother as caregiver and father as breadwinner.
These terms create a divide between mothers and fathers, ranking them in an unhelpful way. It starts families on an unequal course that pigeonholes both parents. We suggest the terms should be dropped in favour of equal parental leave policies in name and in action.
Parental inequality feeds into the gender gap
In March, the Australia Institute reported the gender pay gap is a staggering 31.2%. This gap between the average earnings of men and women is higher than the often reported 13.4%, because it includes part-time employees in the calculation. Excluding part-time working women is a glaring omission, which conceals the full story of the gap between what men and women earn.
The rates of women employed part-time are high in Australia compared to the OECD average. Australian mothers bear the brunt of domestic tasks and often work part-time so they have time for pick-ups, drop-offs and extracurricular activities. This penalises women financially, leaving them with lower earnings, less superannuation and limited career progression.
We know parenthood is a substantial contributor to the gender pay gap — it’s known as the motherhood penalty.Shutterstock
With a gender pay gap of over 30%, it makes sense that most families opt to keep the higher-paid dad in full-time employment. At present, ABS statistics show women take 93.5% of primary parental leave and men take 96.1% of secondary parental leave. But that means dads lose out on time with their kids.
If we are going to do something about gender inequality, we need to do something about parental inequality.
We undervalue caring
The Australian government offers 18 weeks of paid leave to the primary caregiver and two weeks to the secondary caregiver paid at the minimum wage. The 18 weeks for Australian primary carers is equivalent to 7.7 weeks average earnings. The two weeks for secondary carers – overwhelmingly dads – is equivalent to half a week of average earnings.
One month of parental leave reserved for Australian dads paid at a meaningful rate can help to establish a more equal share of family tasks from the beginning. Best practice is 80% of earnings, with a cap. The result will be happier families overall.Shutterstock
There is a fatherhood penalty too
Our research indicates universities’ default assumption is that women are the primary caregiver and dads are not active parents. For dads, they typically have to prove they are the primary caregiver by offering verification that the mum is employed full-time. No such proof is required of mums.
At some universities, even with proof, dads are entitled to less leave as primary carers than mums, or no paid leave at all. Worse still, even when the dad’s partner works for another organisation, some universities deduct the leave the partner has taken from the dad’s entitlement. This doesn’t apply to mums with a partner who works for another organisation.
Authors: Sarah Duffy, Lecturer, School of Business, Western Sydney University