As Father’s Day approaches, we delve into some of the inequities experienced by working fathers and the need to expand our language and conversation beyond the traditional focus of ‘working mothers’ to include the work-life flexibility requirements of working parents.
Benjamin Kumar, a dad with two kids aged three and one, was in trouble. His youngest son had filled his nappy and Ben could tell that he would need changing straight away. But a quick inspection of the café toilets revealed that there were no baby-change facilities in the men’s room, nor in the disabled bathroom. A woman came out of the female toilet and as the door swung shut Ben could see the baby change table, tantalisingly out of reach.
With a sigh, he steered baby, stroller, nappy bag and three-year-old into the men’s toilet, removed his coat and placed it, grimacing, on the dubiously-cleaned floor to create a mat, and set to work.
Ben’s unpleasant experience is a reflection of some of the wider inequalities faced by dads who find themselves relegated to the role of “secondary carer”. In his article on this very topic, Daniel Mottau asks why the role of secondary carers appear to be considered less important by society. His discussion remains carefully gender-neutral, but let’s face it – as a society (here in Australia, anyway), we tend to assume that the man of the house is the secondary carer.
The issue is that the terms “primary carer” and “secondary carer” are seen as increasingly outdated, with the majority of parents now considering themselves equal carers in the home. Yet Australian law and many organisations’ parental leave policies promote unequal levels of caregiving in families, exacerbating existing societal challenges including the gender pay gap.
I spoke with Ben Kumar, a consultant in the IT industry and working dad, about these labels and expectations. “You don’t even hear the term ‘working dad’ used often”, he said. “Businesses are increasingly good at celebrating their working mums, but to many of my past employers, my role as a dad came way down the list in how they perceived me.”
In Australia, laws do not protect the secondary carer if they choose to stay at home with the kids for any significant length of time. Jobs are not kept open by law, and paid parental leave extends only to the primary carer with the exception of Dad and Partner Pay which typically covers two weeks at the national minimum wage.
Research from the Australian National University found that:
- Only two per cent of new dads are taking the available 18 weeks’ Commonwealth Paid Parental leave “due to inflexible policy and stigma about men acting as primary care givers”.
- Less than half of new fathers took advantage of Dad and Partner Pay within the study period.
This issue has an even greater impact on same-sex parents, where the law has the effect of forcing couples unwillingly into assuming the roles (in the eyes of their employers, anyway) of “primary” and “secondary” carer. For a family with two dads or two mums who consider themselves equal caregivers to their children, this can be a difficult decision to make.
The social support groups that are offered to primary carers (usually mums) are also not so available for dads, with a recent study finding that “mums’ group mentality” tended to exclude new dads, leading to them missing out on important support and advice.
Andrew Charenko is a Senior Manager in the technology sector. When his wife returned to work full time after twelve months parental leave, they made a joint decision that he would spend the second 12 months at home with their daughter. He described the experience with his daughter as 'life-changing'. “I had always been a hands-on father, but it was on that first day when my wife went to work that I looked at my daughter and realised the full weight of the parenting responsibility, the pressure you put on yourself to get it right and the sheer joy that I would get from the experience.” However, he also noted there were challenges with being a stay at home father including people’s biases around who is or should be at home parenting a child.
When it came to reclaiming his career after a year at home, “I found it challenging on a couple of different fronts – my confidence took a hit after being out of the job market for so long as well as facing in to a level of suspicion around why I took 12 months off work to care for my daughter. It got to the point where I was starting to think that I may have made a mistake being out of the workforce for so long and then realised that you just need to meet with the right people and the right company. When I was interviewed for my role at BetEasy, the first thing I was told by Nick Tyshing was that he wished he’d done something like that, then he moved straight to talking about my experience and the business. This was the first time where the decision to take 12 months off was taken at face value and treated with admiration rather than confusion. Staying at home with my daughter was personally the best decision I have ever made, but when re-entering the workforce it did feel like professionally a huge risk that thankfully had a happy landing at the right company.”
Even more concerning are reports that dads who seek to prioritise their children are subtly penalised at work:
- A recent Australian study by ING found that half of men felt that as a secondary carer they would have less justification to ask for more paternity leave from their employer, while 41% felt they would be judged by their colleagues or boss if they took parental leave.
- A UK study found dads face “fatherhood forfeit” when applying for part-time employment, and are often met with questions over their commitment to their careers.
- One journalist linked his request for better work-life balance (and more time with his kids) to the fact that he was first out the door when a restructure arrived. The report notes that this is “in sharp contrast to women who regularly receive praise for their dedication to proactively seeking a work-life balance”.
Work-life balance through flexible working arrangements appears to be the key to solving many of the challenges faced by business and working parents. Without flexibility, juggling a career with caring for children is often found to be “too hard”, as we have seen with working mums who end up exiting the workforce or experiencing career stagnation. This has the knock-on effect of creating societal issues including the gender pay gap and a lack of equity in women in leadership.
Ben has noticed this too. “Most workplaces understand the importance of letting working mums get out the door on time to pick the kids up from school. But as a dad, I’ve seen some eyebrows raised when I’ve had to dash out the door at 3.00pm”, he said. “It really comes down to whether or not an employer believes in flexible working – I’m always going to make up those hours by working later that evening.”
The Australian Institute of Family Studies found that even though fathers are increasingly involved in child care, for most families the number of hours fathers spend in employment remains the same before and after having children. The study found that fathers are more likely to choose flexible work or working from home arrangements rather than reduce work hours to fit work around child care.
What can employers do?
Supporting working dads or secondary carers isn’t just good for the dads. It’s good for the kids, and good for their primary carers. Workplaces can make the following changes:
- Offering paid or unpaid parental leave (keeping a job open) for secondary carers.
- Giving flexible working opportunities to working dads such as shorter weeks, flexible hours, and working from home.
- Challenging the perception where the primary “breadwinner” is assumed to be the secondary carer.
- Considering removing the terms “primary” and “secondary” from parental leave policies.
- Understanding that helping dads achieve work-life balance will help mums, and make a positive impact on long-entrenched social issues including the gender pay gap, women returning to work after having children, and the gap in female leadership.
“It takes a shift in mindset, but an increasing number of businesses are starting to get it”, says Ben. “You can improve gender equality for mums by giving more flexibility to dads. It almost sounds counter intuitive, but it works. If I have the support of my employers to work a four-day week, or leave early for the school run, or work from home when necessary, this will allow my wife more time to better focus on her own career.”
Just imagine if this could be the case with every family and workplace in Australia – inequality for working mums would almost disappear overnight.