It’s a father’s human right to have the choice to stay home with their baby. Picture: iStock
It’s a father’s human right to have the choice to stay home with their baby. Picture: iStock

Why men deserve equal paid parental leave to women

American journalist Tim Russert once said, "the most precious things a father can provide are time, attention, and love". This Father's Day, we should be asking ourselves why we have made it so hard for Australian dads to provide time, attention and love to their children.

Today in Australia, our fathers face major hurdles in accessing parental leave. Less than half of the employers in the Workplace Gender Equality Agency's dataset offer paid parental leave. Of those that do, the vast majority divide it into primary carer's leave (largely used by female employees) and secondary carer's leave (mostly used by male employees).

The average length of secondary carer's leave is 1.7 weeks - precious little time for a father to bond with their newborn "bub".

Australian fathers are getting a raw deal when it comes to parental leave. It is time to scrap the outdated concepts and labels of primary and secondary carers. All parents are carers, nurturers and teachers for their children. Men and women need equal access to paid parental leave (PPL).

There is a clear business case for equal-access to paid parental leave. It improves employee engagement, performance, productivity and loyalty. It helps employers attract and retain talented workers and can reduce employee turnover and recruitment costs. Each year in Australia, $385 million is lost in avoidable recruitment costs.

However, it is not just about the business case. For me, there is an even more compelling reason for offering parental leave to men and, importantly, supporting and encouraging them to take it.

This is a human rights issue. Children need their fathers to be present in their lives and so many fathers now want to play an active role in their children's lives.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the crucial importance of active fatherhood in a child's life.

Australian and U.S. research shows that having a "hands-on" dad has enormous benefits for a child's early development. It leads to higher levels of cognitive development, social competence, social responsibility and empathy. There is also a link between active fathers and stronger academic readiness and achievement and better health outcomes in their children.

In 2020, many men I speak with strive to form close bonds and strong connections with their children. Research shows that fathers who are more involved in child rearing and family life realise considerable benefits, including improved wellbeing, happiness and increased commitment to their family.

Paid paternity leave benefits families as fathers can play an active role in child caring. Picture: iStock
Paid paternity leave benefits families as fathers can play an active role in child caring. Picture: iStock

Fathers and partners who take parental leave are also more likely to continue their involvement in actively raising their children. This improves the wellbeing of the whole family, but particularly the father himself.

My first husband Michael was a criminal lawyer. He took two years out of work to be the stay-at-home dad. Father and son cherished this time. It turned out to be particularly poignant as some years later Michael developed a brain tumour and died - 11 weeks after diagnosis. The blessing is that no one can ever take those two years with his dad away from my son. Michael was a rare example of a working father being able to spend time on both his career and his family.

The fact that Michael's story remains an anomaly all these years later is shameful. It is an indictment of how little we value the role fathers play in our society. Men must have the same right to paid parental leave as women.

Libby Lyons, head of the Federal Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Picture: Luke Bowden
Libby Lyons, head of the Federal Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Picture: Luke Bowden

Smart employers across Australia are showing that it is possible to provide the support working dads need. Health insurance provider Medibank adopted a new equal-access PPL policy in 2018. Prior to this, only 2.5 per cent of their employees taking parental leave longer than two weeks were men. A year later, it had jumped to 28 per cent. Within two years of engineering firm Aurecon adopting an equal-access PPL policy, the number of men taking parental leave tripled.

The message is simple: if we change the circumstances, we change the choices that men can make.

Australian fathers want to spend more time with their children. This Father's Day, I implore all Australian employers to let them do it.

Libby Lyons is the Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency


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