I’ve been working on a uni assignment lately that’s actually been quite interesting (shock horror!). At first, I thought I’d focus on women in the workforce and how things like how much employers support things like maternity leave, return to work, flexible working arrangements, etc. can affect the trajectory of a woman’s career and role in the workforce more generally. However, as I’ve been interviewing people, my story has slowly changed.
I now think I’m going to write about how gender inequality exists on both sides. Yes, women have many disadvantages. Yes, many of these seem to crop up around the time they decide to have a family but other things, like unconscious bias, sexism, etc. also exist. Do family based issues “hijack the conversation” as one of my interviewees said? In many cases, women have the raw end of the deal and yet, I think there is one particular instance where men are getting jacked. Paternity leave.
In Australia, workers are entitled to 12 months leave during which their job (or a similar role) must be held for them. They can also request an extra 12 months leave. This is unpaid. However, they can apply for 18 weeks leave paid at the standard minimum wage (a bit over $600/wk). Some employers offer to up this to their actual pay rate although not always paid in full (maybe half paid, half leave without pay). Standard paternity or non-primary care-giver leave is two weeks (usually one paid, one not paid or you can get the gov’t funded one at two weeks paid at min wage).
In the majority of cases, the primary care giver is the mother. The 2014 Westpac Women of Influence Report found that only one in five fathers are the primary caregiver compared to four in five mothers. Yet, at least theoretically, men are equally as entitled to be the primary caregiver as their female counterparts. So why are so few men taking this opportunity to be more connected to their children? Men are definitely doing it more than they USED to but not as much as they could. Of course, if they’re the main breadwinner, finances come into play but surely many men would like longer than 2 weeks to bond with their child? 70% of men return to work within 2 weeks of the birth of their child. Only 22% of men in the public sector were likely to take five weeks leave or more and that number drops to 7% in the private sector.
In this age of opportunity when we have so many benefits that those before us didn’t, why wouldn’t we take advantage of as many as we can? I think the simple answer is gender stereotypes. It’s simply not accepted enough that a man would be the primary caregiver – even temporarily. Some don’t even consider it, some don’t know it’s there, some don’t think they could make it work – most don’t even ask. Yet, every man I interviewed that took ‘longer than usual’ paternity leave said it was an amazing experience that they would recommend to every dad. It made me very sad to think of all the men missing out on something they don’t need to.
I grew up – for the most part – without a dad. My own died before I was three and my parents had separated before then anyways. My mother was never very involved with my sister’s dad (aside from making my sister!). Later on, I had a stepdad who I eventually grew to like in my later teens but I would say I generally grew up without a male influence. In Jamaica, where I lived from between the ages of 10 and 18, many families are matriarchal and I rarely saw a father interacting, playing, spending quality time with his children. Occasionally, yes. But not often. Even today, when I see a dad heading out on an adventure with his kid/s, it makes me smile probably in a much more appreciative (and probably creepy) way than should strictly be expected.
These days, we seem to be turning everything on its head but gender. In many ways, women are making greater strides into the workforce, which was traditionally man’s domain. Why aren’t men making equally as determined strides into women’s domain, the home? Does no one want that job? Or are they slowly, slowly but no one’s paying attention?
One final thing: a lot of the people I interviewed said that either they personally (as men) or their partners (if the interviewees were women) had experienced discrimination while performing their role as the primary (male) caregiver. Going to ‘mother’s’ groups, school events, playgrounds, supermarkets on a week day during “work hours” got them strange looks or pointed questions. They felt left out and isolated as none of the mothers would include them. Surely, as women, trying to make our way in the male-dominated business world, we can spare some inclusivity and kindness for the men doing the same in “our” world? You would think so.