Why businesses need to do more to help dads take parental leave

By Justine Alter

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency recently released its annual update on the state of workplace gender equality. It revealed the average total remuneration gender pay gap dropped to 21.7 per cent in 2023. While small, it’s still progress – the biggest shift since 2014.

What we can’t ignore from this report, and what we know from our parental leave coaching, is that the number of men taking paid primary carer parental leave has barely shifted. The report shows there’s only been a 0.6 per cent increase from 2022. Why is this the case?

Put simply, we have more to do to help organisations be ready for dads to take parental leave in Australia.

Giving fathers flexible access to parental leave can make a big difference, study finds.
Giving fathers flexible access to parental leave can make a big difference, study finds.

As a practitioner in this space, there is so much more to do culturally and holistically within organisations. While the uptake – albeit minor – in dads taking more parental leave is great, we need the structure to be built and the scaffolding to be there before it’s successful.

To enable this, organisations need to invest in manager training to upskill their leaders to handle the complex psychosocial hazards and risks that arise in the parental leave transition.

Job demands are a huge risk factor in many new parents leaving or dropping out of the workforce altogether. So often, we see parents returning to work and being offered flexibility, but that often comes with conditions like doing five days of work in four days (and getting paid 80 per cent for the privilege).

This is a different situation to an actual agreed compressed work week, where the role and job demands are considered and altered accordingly. The reality is, you can’t perform in the same way at the same pace, especially at a high level.

Managers with dads who wish to come back part-time or work flexibly need to ask: what will we do about his job demands and role clarity when he returns? What supports do we have in the team, so he can protect his boundaries around on his day off? What’s in place to ensure he feels accepted for his parental leave? How are we changing the KPIs to reflect their current capacity?

Employees want to know that there’s a culture of support. That could mean flexibility, it could mean clear pathways to promotion, or it could be something else entirely. It’s going to be different for everyone.

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The first step is having open communication with the employee and allowing them to feel supported from the outset. It’s vital to attract and retain talent, focus on the unique needs of the person and how you can work together to meet these and the needs of the business in a way that works for all.

With the best intentions, numerous companies have great policies that just end up sitting on the shelf. Leaders need to ensure policies are kept up to date with new legislation and are well implemented and communicated. Workplaces need to encourage both parents to take leave and support them with parental leave coaching, especially dads.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s chief executive Mary Wooldridge says, “If we want real change, we need employers to take bold action. We need employers to look across the drivers of gender inequality and be imaginative in their solutions.”

I agree wholeheartedly. If organisations are truly serious about creating lasting gender equality, they must consider what they can do to make it successful. Organisations have to see the many benefits of creating meaningful change for society to catch up.

Justine Alter is a registered psychologist and the co-director of Transitioning Well, which helps workplaces and employees navigate parental leave and other life-work transitions.

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