Paid parental leave progress has plateaued, according to a new paper

A new paper by University of Sydney researchers has warned that failure to improve the ten-year-old paid parental leave scheme has entrenched gender inequality, both at work and at home.

Writing in the Journal of Industrial Relations , Professor Marian Baird and Associate Professor Myra Hamilton from the University of Sydney Business School argue that more opportunities for fathers to take parental leave would make inroads for women’s workforce participation rates.

Despite the fact most primary and secondary carer paid parental leave schemes are accessible to both women and men, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows 95 percent of primary carer paid parental leave was taken by mothers and 95 percent of secondary carer leave was taken by fathers.

"The introduction of the Australian Paid Parental Leave Act in 2010 was a giant leap forward but the basic structure of the scheme has barely changed in a decade," Professor Marian Baird said.

"Our research shows that opening up opportunities for fathers to take paid carer leave will make significant headway towards gender equality. But after almost a decade since the Act was introduced, there’s been no movement in the duration of leave that’s accessible through paid secondary carer leave provisions like Dad and Partner Pay."

While Dad and Partner Pay was a significant amendment to the original scheme in 2013, it provides only two weeks of pay and has had minimal uptake: an estimated 25 percent of eligible fathers and partners accessed the payments in 2018-2019, according to Department of Social Services data. 

Governments need to work in consultation with employers and unions to improve the architecture of the original paid parental leave scheme.

"The short duration of secondary carer leaves like Dad and Partner Pay emphasise the role of fathers as ’supporters’ at the time of birth, rather than being substantially involved in the care of their children in the early years," Associate Professor Myra Hamilton said.

"While having time together at the birth of a child is important for couples and babies, the sharing of primary care over a longer period is what will lead to more gender equitable outcomes." 

The fact that both Paid Parental Leave and Dad and Partner Pay are paid at the national minimum wage is another barrier to uptake by men.

"Clauses, policies or workplace contexts that incentivise shared use of paid primary carer leave by mothers and fathers would also lead to more equitable outcomes. So, it’s not just policymakers who need to be part of the solution, but employers and unions too," Associate Professor Hamilton said.

In the paper, ’ Gender equality and paid parental leave in Australia: A decade of giant leaps or baby steps ?’, the researchers outline why design features of the original scheme like prohibiting the equal sharing of leave between mothers and fathers meant that it was almost exclusively taken by women.

"It was ’parental leave’ in name and was technically available to either parent but was clearly targeted at the birth mother. While there have been improvements like the introduction of Dad and Partner Pay and, more recently, allowing some flexibility in the use of the 18 weeks,  these incremental policy shifts have done little to shift the dial on gender equality," Professor Baird said.

"Governments need to work in consultation with employers and unions to improve the architecture of the original paid parental leave scheme, meeting the expectations of working mothers and fathers today."

Declaration

The authors received funding through the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research for this paper. Professor Marian Baird was Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Industrial Relations when the paper was submitted but was not involved in the Special Issue peer-review process.

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