Is your parental leave policy still in the stone age?

The latest Census data from the Australia Bureau of Statistics shows only five per cent of dads - just one in 20 - take primary parental leave. But for many dads or partners it isn’t due to a lack of desire, they simply aren’t being given the choice.

Prue Gilbert is a human rights lawyer and the founder and CEO of Grace Papers, a gender equity consultancy and technology platform that helps employers, and their employees, navigate pregnancy, parental leave and their return to work.

She says companies that offer strong parental leave and flexible work arrangements for dads or partners can put themselves at an advantage over their competitors.

Not only is it good for your brand, your employee engagement and employee retention, says Gilbert, but there are employers who proactively encourage dads and partners to take leave because they recognise it’s a development opportunity.

“They develop better empathy, more compassion, the ability to be flexible - and that enables them to bring an incredible breadth of new skills back into the workplace,” says Gilbert.

“It makes them better managers, better people leaders and helps them connect with their clients and bring new experiences in a very affordable way by offering 12 or 16 weeks of paid parental leave – it’s cheaper than sending them to Harvard!”

Benefit versus cost

Gilbert says one of the biggest obstacles to improving gender equity in the workplace is the perception that it’s a social justice issue, in other words, a necessary cost to bear.

But aside from the fact greater access to leave for dads and partners opens the door for many mothers to make an earlier return to work, strong parental leave policies can also help you attract the best talent.

Spotify, for example, offers six months fully paid paternity leave – regardless of gender or how you become a parent – and they receive nearly 30,000 job applications a month.

Quite simply, says Gilbert, gender equity is good for the bottom line. But more than that, she adds, it’s great for society.

“Men are missing out on those golden years of connection with the little people in their lives,” says Gilbert.

“We know the research stacks up on higher academic performances when fathers are more involved and engaged in their children, that connection with children reduces their stress and, over the longer term, they report to have less regrets in life.”

What the fathers say

Harry Wildman and Steven Bearzatto are among the five per cent of Australian men who took primary carers leave when their children were born.

Wildman, an Associate Director with Ernst and Young, was entitled to 14 weeks – three weeks as concurrent leave with his partner and a further 11 weeks to be his daughter Alexa’s primary carer.

He says once he went back to work he’d felt a widening divide between his own experience and understanding of his daughter’s needs compared to his partner Lindelle in Alexa’s early months. The opportunity to take over the role when Alexa was six months old allowed him to gain some ground back and become an ‘expert’ in his own right.

Now they are both back working full time, the responsibility is shared as to who has the day off when Alexa is sick and can’t attend day care.

Wildman scoffs at the idea you need to sacrifice your career to take parental leave.

“In all likelihood we are going to have quite a long working career,” he says.

“You may lose six, or even 12, months’ experience – but what is that in the big scheme of things really? It’s no different to taking a bit of a career break.”

Bearzatto is an executive manager of engineering at the REA Group. His wife Julia also holds a senior executive role. Both travel overseas as part of their job, and both wanted to be equally involved in raising their daughter Asher.

REA Group offered Bearzatto up to six months primary carer’s leave on full pay – but even as a secondary carer REA allowed him six weeks on full pay, with a further six weeks on half pay. He chose a mix of both.

“For us it wasn’t so much a financial decision, I knew I wanted to spend the time with Asher and having both of us being able to look after Asher in all circumstances was really important to us,” says Bearzatto.

These days he and Julia both work a nine-day fortnight, alternating their Fridays off to stay home with Asher.

When she is sick they compare calendars to see who is best placed to stay home with her. Sometimes they take a half day each.

“It’s a very parent-friendly culture where I work,” says Bearzatto.

“It really helped with my engagement and wanting to stay here because I know I’ll be supported in the years ahead.  You never have to be worried what someone might say if you go home because your child is sick.

“Having these big policies reinforces that as a company ideology. People are here for the long run, and people come back from their parental leave.”

Bringing about change

Gilbert says there is no silver bullet to achieving gender equity in a culture; it’s all about step change and consistent conversations.

However, one of the first things a business can do, she says, is start with the leadership. Have them articulate a vision for what gender equity looks and feels like and work out what their appetite is for change.

Understand how you need to communicate to the leadership and what kind of business case, if at all, you need to mount to get support for the roll out of policies and procedures.

Importantly, says Gilbert, encourage conversations among dads – the good, the bad and the ugly.

“Data tells us men’s requests for flexibility are more likely to be rejected than a women’s so what we have normalised for women, we haven’t yet normalised for men,” says Gilbert.

“With less than five per cent of men taking parental leave we need to create the space to say it wasn’t all tiny teddies, yes it was also lonely and isolating and it can be hard – but that’s where the gold lies too.”

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Belinda Parkes

Belinda Parkes is a freelance journalist and sub-editor with more than 20 years’ media experience across newspapers, magazines and digital media. Belinda has had a love affair with words from a young age, having written a song at age five, a...

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