Family-Friendly Leave Time A Two-Way Street

21 / 08 / 2014

Earlier this month, sovaldi the Westpac Women of Influence Survey 2014 was released, ask revealing that while a majority of women view childcare arrangements as being the responsibility of government and society as a whole, more men (and indeed fathers) still view childcare as a ‘private’ issue, with the onus of responsibility lying with individual parents. Emily Lee-Ack is a working woman who also happens to be a mother of two. Her partner is the father of these two children, who also happens to have a job.

In this piece for Sheilas, Emily looks at the recent survey results, and raises some critical issues we as a society need to grapple with in order to encourage more shared parenting – which ultimately will improve conditions not just for women, but for men, children and families at large.

By Emily Lee-Ack

Ten years ago, after my son was born, my partner and I sat down for a ‘Productive Talk’ about how we would arrange our lives with this vastly new experience.  I was keen to get back to work, but knew that might sometimes involve interstate travel and night meetings.  We did the maths, we figured out what suited, and he dropped two workdays and picked up a Saturday shift. We shared the load with a centre-based childcare co-op which miraculously had a place.

So far, so good.  Until the conjunctivitis.  And the sniffling.  And the endless, endless coughs and colds which plagued our little one as he rubbed germs with other kids – his system locked in an epic battle for immune supremacy.

So there were days off.  Many of them were mine.  And on the first instance my partner rang his employer to request a sick day to care for our son, we encountered our first real taste of workplace discrimination.

I watched, as he stood with the phone, patiently explaining to his employer that, No, I wouldn’t be taking the day off work and, Yes, as a father he DID think it was his responsibility to take time off when his child was sick.  No, he went on, I wouldn’t be calling my work to see if there was any way I could get out of the meetings I had lined up for the day, and No, he wouldn’t be suggesting that I do that.

With growing frustration, I heard him finally say, “Well, to be honest with you, Churlish Manager*, her job is way more important than mine.  So no, I won’t be in today”.

Maybe Churlish Manager is an exception, an anomaly in a male-dominated industry.  In an SMS to ABC Statewide Drive recently, “Brenton” argued that he solved his workplace hassles by only employing men over 50**.  But surely such men often have family responsibilities too?

My mind went into overdrive. Could it be that families have been shielding employers of men – like Brenton – from such inconveniences as – da-da-daaaaaa – sick children?

One colleague I spoke to this week thinks so:  “My female employees who have kids or older parents take all of their sick leave for others.  Then, when they get sick, they have no sick leave left.  Women don’t get more sick leave than men – so somewhere in there, dads aren’t sharing that load”.

A recent study in the US indicates this is more than just an anecdote, finding that 74 per cent of women take sick days for their kids, compared with 40 per cent of men.

In this context, it’s probably not surprising to learn that more men than women think that childcare is an individual and private problem to solve, rather than the responsibility of government to provide options.  If men don’t have to take responsibility for childcare, it’s easy to see it as an individual responsibility – or more importantly, Someone Else’s.

Men, it would appear, don’t think as much about the consequences for their career of having children.  Indeed, the Westpac Women of Influence Survey 2014 found that just 22 per cent of fathers thought that having children had hindered their career, while 50 per cent of mothers believe this to be the case.

It’s that same unconscious bias that leaves mothers calculating their cost of returning to work, subtracting the cost of childcare from only their wage, not from the combined family income or, heaven forbid, that of their partner.

More than once, I have heard friends and colleagues who are mothers sharing a story of doing the maths, alone, before pitching the case for a return to work to their partners.  Without a financially viable option to present, many accept being out of the workplace for longer than they’d prefer.

Alarmingly, even the otherwise excellent Better Health Channel characterises the issue as one for mothers to solve.

So what can be done?  Here’s where gender equity comes to the rescue (yet again!).

The solution may be as simple, or as difficult, as rethinking what it is to be a whole person – not “mum” or “dad” or “employee”.  Plenty of dads would like to take more time to spend with their kids – survey upon survey sees this number increase.  We need to open a conversation about how this might be possible, and not imply that such decisions are emasculating, nor the result of some wild gender-imbalance in the home.

And we need to look at the experience of others, who are leaving us behind. Australia is fast becoming a backwater in terms of the question of parental leave. We need only look at other countries around the world who are providing leave schemes shared freely between parents.

Projectile vomit isn’t gender-specific.  The ability to run from the house screaming to the welcome relief of your workplace shouldn’t be either.


* not his real name

** doubt this solves all Brenton’s workplace hassles