By JULIE MCKAY
We live in a world where women continue to be under-represented in leadership roles, have less economic security and frequently face violence in their homes. Despite all of the effort which is going into promoting gender equality, there still remain systemic and structural barriers to genuine equality. Women still bear the burden for the majority of child caring responsibilities and continue to take time out of the workforce more often than men.
The current comparison of the major parties’ paid parental leave schemes embed society’s acceptance of paid parental leave really only being an issue for mothers. We have even seen some of the most respected feminist commentators comparing the policies on the basis of which would be best for mothers.
Of course we need to be having a conversation about which policy works best for mums, I am the first person to argue that we don’t do this often enough. But, we need to also be having a conversation about shared-care and what might work as incentive for more men to take on primary caring responsibilities, rather than assuming that this will always be the role of women.
The Labor Government should be commended for committing to meeting Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and implementing Australia’s first Paid Parental Leave scheme in 2012.
The Liberal policy extends the commitment to 26 weeks at full pay (capped at $150K) and includes superannuation. This goes some way to addressing the calls from the women’s sector to ensure that women’s long term economic security is not affected through taking time out of the workforce to have children.
What remains blatantly clear though, is that the conversation is still about supporting mothers to stay at home.
In fact, if we really want to progress gender equality we need to actively encourage more men to take primary caring responsibilities. Two weeks paternity leave does not reflect shared responsibility for care-giving.
Neither does the Liberal policy of inviting men to take the 26 weeks leave, but at the mother’s wage, accepting that by and large in Australia, women’s wages are lower.
If we accept that parents should be paid their normal wage when on parental leave, then this should apply to both parents, not just mothers.
What incentive is there for couples looking to share child care responsibility when one has to consider a pay cut the other doesn’t?
If my husband and I were to have children, one of the major factors in our decision about who would take leave would be financial. My husband, earning more than I do, would be the obvious person to work while I took a period of leave. If however, we were able to make the decision about who would care for our baby without going backwards financially; our decision may be entirely different.
If we genuinely want to address gender inequality in Australia we need to develop policies which proactively support shared responsibility for care-giving.
I would argue at this stage that neither of the major party’s policies do this.
In Sweden, parents are given 480 days of paid leave which can be taken by either parent.
To address the imbalance in current care giving arrangements, the Swedish system has an additional payment to parents who share the leave – encouraging both parents to use the leave, not just the mother.
Even under this system, still only 24% paid leave is taken by men.
Norway has taken one step further, allowing both parents to share the 46 weeks of full pay leave provided under their paid parental leave scheme, but mandating that 12 of those weeks must be taken by the father, or they are lost.
Norway’s experience demonstrates that leave requirements successfully change the balance. In 1977 Norway’s policy of paid leave (yes, they did this 30 years ago) allowed men to share the leave, however only 2-3 percent of leave was taken by men.
Today, more than 90% of men take up their leave provisions and consistently report that they have stronger bonds with their children as a result. Other metrics in Norway demonstrate that this has led to men taking a more proactive role in both child rearing, but also other domestic and caring based roles.
I absolutely believe that we need to take a moment – and celebrate that having a paid parental leave scheme of any form is a win for families. But I would challenge the major parties to think about their legacy in terms of shifting societal patterns and advancing gender equality. Neither of the policies does this courageously at the moment.
This Father’s Day, please share this article, and show our politicians that caring for children isn’t just a ‘women’s issue’ it’s everyone’s issue.
Julie McKay is the Executive Director of the Australian National Committee for UN Women.