Under the Productivity Commission’s parental leave proposal, men are entitled to two weeks’ paternity leave (use it or lose it), and mothers would be allowed to transfer their 18-week entitlement to their partners. It leaves the important decision about who provides primary care up to individual families and, by including women and men, the proposal raises the bar. At last men are becoming visible in parenting policy debates, and the move puts the onus on fathers and industries dominated by men.
Working life for men today has morphed into a 1950s model of male employment. Job security and reasonable hours have been curtailed by an economy organised on short-term contracts, in industries exposed to international competition. This has greatly intensified demands on full-time male workers.
Limiting the role men play as parents limits men’s choice to be involved in family life and reinforces the exclusivity of women’s role as primary carers. In turn, this limits women’s participation in work, forcing many to opt for flexible and part-time employment to meet the competing demands of work and family. That leads to a deeply divided labour market, one where women have less job security and are paid less, which forces men to work more to maintain family income, and that reduces their capacity time, mainly to be active fathers and at home when their children are awake.
There are sound biological reasons why the needs of women are central to the debates about work and family. Giving mothers paid time off after childbirth is good for the health and wellbeing of both mother and child.
Even so, the focus on women lets men – and male-dominated industries – off too lightly. A parental leave scheme for men and women sends an important message to men, and their employers, that they have a right and a responsibility to care for their children.
It lets families decide who will look after their children and, hopefully, this will increase the choices open to families and equality between parents in child-rearing. One of the biggest barriers to parental leave facing male workers in male industries is a workplace culture that fails to acknowledge the role of men in their families. The male culture of work is so powerful many men are simply unable, or unwilling, to ask for a better work-life balance. Those who do ask send a signal to their firms that they are less serious and less committed than others, a situation that perversely penalises women who are left to make this call.
Male industries have been very clever at avoiding any of the costs of providing parental leave across our economy. It is now largely borne by employers in industries that rely on women workers, such as health, education, retail and hospitality.
There is nothing inherently different about work in these sectors. It is simply that employers in female-dominated industries had to reorganise work around the family needs of their employees. Male industries flatly refused to do so.
This inflexibility presents men with a stark choice: toe the line and neglect your family, or get out. Witness the growing number of high-profile men vacating corporate and public life altogether because the unreasonable demands of work leave little time for their families and personal life (most recently the former NSW deputy premier John Watkins).
Getting an equal parental leave entitlement for men is the first step. The second is getting them to take it. Many men may react with horror at the thought of taking an equal or greater role in parenting. Given the choice, I know lots of women who would prefer to arrive home from work after the “arsenic hour” of dinner and bath time.
Still, this is all part of the loving relationship of family life. Demanding that men commit to a kind of priesthood of working life means they forgo this relationship, leaving much of the child-rearing burden on women, and making men’s lives less complete.
It is about time men embraced some father guilt and agitated for policy that fits better with their family life. After all, time with family and community makes us all better people.
Jo-anne Schofield is the executive director of Catalyst Australia, a think tank, and a working mother.