Addressing the ‘motherhood penalty’: Make dads more than an ‘optional extra’ in parental leave policy to close the gender equality gap

Three hands of the same family.

The number of working parents – particularly working mothers – continues to rise and yet the number dads taking parental leave persistently isn’t budging – with only 2% of Australian dads taking parental leave.

“An investigation by the Diversity Council in 2014 found raising children accounted for ‘a 17% loss in lifetime wages for women’. . . When it comes to family dynamics, change has been fairly slow in Australia.” (Matt Wade, SMH)

Why is this the case despite clear evidence that a society – all aspects of it (work, community and home life) – greatly benefits from embracing gender equality, not just in word but in action? Why are Australian women continuing to lose out when it comes to their careers? Why are men continuing to lose out when it comes to spending time with their children? And why are employers not seeing the value in what facilitating greater ease – for both sexes – in managing work and family responsibilities?

The parent perspective 

There’s no doubt that working lives are disrupted when a baby arrives and many pre-baby expectations are challenged and unrealistic as career vision, goals and values change.  From my experience as a HR practitioner, career coach and parent, I’ve have seen many individuals struggle to redefine and manage their career when they become parents.

Too often individuals find themselves directionless and disengaged with their work, peers, family and friends. They feel forced to choose between these important relationships and work.  Compounded by the fact that every year it becomes more expensive to raise a family; wages growth isn’t in step and technology has us connected 24/7 to our workplaces – which has many asking themselves, is this sustainable and at what cost?

The employer perspective

Equally, workplaces struggle to help employees navigate this ‘stage of life’ and their managers often lack experience and knowledge about how to support employees, especially through the early years of parenthood.

But the reality is, because it is over 95% of women who take parental leave, it’s really mothers who are penalised most by these challenges.  As Matt Wade in his SMH column points us, “the financial and career costs of motherhood, especially over a lifetime, are typically huge despite decades of sweeping social change”.

Sharing the caring

If we really want to close the gender equality gap, we need to address the gap in how we are sharing the caring load.

If only 2% of dads are taking parental leave – why is this? As a society, as workplaces, we still expect – and are pre-conditioned – to mothers taking a career back step as they take on the majority of caring for children, and the elderly for that matter. [It’s worth noting here that for the few brave men who do dare to take time out to share in the caring, they too report experiencing the motherhood penalty when returning to earning].

As such, we tailor our parental leave services towards mothers, and in my view, we continue to further exacerbate the motherhood penalty. Fathers are optional extras it seems. We don’t expect them to take much time off to raise kids, if any, so therefore fathers’ needs go largely unnoticed and are undervalued.  And women simply can’t earn as much as men because they are responsible for the majority of unpaid caring…and so the gender gap cycle continues year in, year out, with little significant change to write home about.

Start being more family friendly in your workplace, encourage more dads to share the caring. With this simple shift we may see the ‘parenthood penalty’ disappear altogether and with it, more mums in the boardroom putting their P&F, class mum and fundraising experience to good use for the wider community and the economy. Plus more dads reaping the benefits of learned skills and more enriching connections with their children.

#ShareTheCare      #AussieDadsCare