It’s time we put old-school parental leave policies permanently in the naughty corner

Sebastian Revell
By Sebastian Revell | 29 September 2021
Sebastian Revell.

Sebastian Revell, strategy director, TBWA Sydney

With all our family and the majority of friends abroad, there was slight apprehension that the support my partner and I would need when our daughter came along six months ago, wouldn’t be there. 

But our biggest headache actually came from trying to come to terms with parental leave systems that seemed to have been created in an era when the ‘Honey, I’m home!’ trope, was still very much a reality.

So, on the surface of it, it’s great to see agencies promoting improvements to their parental leave policies. But looking deeper, it’s hard not to look at these improvements (invariably an addition of an extra week or two) instead simply as updates, which are ultimately tokenistic gestures of care that lack the actual, practical care new parents need.

With all the best intentions, they are treating the symptom not the problem. Industry agitator Rishad Tobaccowala proclaimed in his 2013 4A’s keynote, “the future does not fit in the containers of the past”.

The policy updates acknowledge that more help is needed to better balance the demands of work and life today. However, they are not changing enough where it would make the biggest difference; on a wholesale structural level.

The problem begins in the very definition of parental leave in the first place, which is no longer fit for purpose and is out-of-step and ill-defined for values we hold today.

They put labels on a parent’s love.
In Australia, like many other countries, parental leave is currently defined by ‘primary’ and 'secondary’ carer labels.

Imagine if our kids introduced us to their friends as “this is my primary and this is my secondary”. Other than being pretty cool in a sci-fi sense, it actually wouldn’t feel that great. But of course, there’s no split definitions in their eyes; equality is assumed because it is their natural understanding of things.

Only our nurture feeds inequality, not our nature.These definitions present a grey area where one really shouldn’t exist. Because whether you’re a mother or father, adopting or biological, LGBTQIA+ or straight; a new parent is a new parent. It’s the only label that matters.

As will come as no surprise, statistics show that women are overwhelmingly most often the ‘primary’ carer, and men the ‘secondary’. As such, all these labels serve to do is define parental identity through enforcing old-fashioned gender roles of men being 'breadwinners', and women being ‘homemakers’.

This has a profound knock-on effect, as literally defining (mostly) men as a 'secondary' parent (with inferior leave entitlements) doesn’t allow them to support equally in raising a child. It contributes to toxic ideals of what it means to be a man, and does nothing to improve perceptions and acceptance of a man’s place in the home.

Sweden recognised how disconnected fathers were becoming in family life, so they introduced 480 days of leave at 80% salary for both parents, irrespective of gender. Men also received 90 days full pay to encourage early-stage bonding.

As we make progress with women in the workplace (although much more needs to be done for equal pay and leadership representation), equally we should be improving opportunities for men in the homeplace. The two need to work in unison, because they correlate and are reciprocal.

Shared and gender-neutral parental leave will not only influence more equal parenting roles, but more equal career roles too.

Libby Lyons, ex-director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency says: “removing labels and implementing gender-neutral paid parental leave will help remove the stigma of men not being active fathers, and the barriers to career progression faced by women because of the extended breaks taken in those early years of parenthood.”

If more women could see other women being better supported back into work, then we could stop putting them in unnecessary positions of even thinking about having to choose between prioritising their career or their family.

Just as if more men saw male peers taking extended leave, then they too would be more inclined to take leave and not see it as emasculating.

Deloitte Australia removed the primary and secondary labels a couple of years ago and report that it “immensely removed the misconception that parental leave was just for women.”

This isn’t just ideology; this is good economics.

Michael Kim, Spotify’s Head of HR APAC notes that “when we launched the parental leave programme [genderless 6 months full pay and a relaxed ‘welcome back’ part-time schedule] two years ago, one of the first interesting things we saw in the data was a significant spike in external applications from candidates who wanted to join Spotify.”

Research by The Australian Institute of Family Studies drew strong links between improved parental leave policies and business performance, Namely, more positive work/home life balances, higher productivity and job satisfaction, and greater talent retention and recruitment.

Each year in Australia, $385 million is lost in avoidable recruitment costs.As an industry known for having its fair share of churn and burn, along with a looming societal shift to The Great Resignation, this is where we should be paying close attention.

For us, shared and gender-neutral parental policies would benefit our talent who fall out of the industry because they don’t feel supported enough in their family commitments, to come back

Shared, gender-neutral parental policies would also benefit our bosses, who are anxious about losing top talent that choose family as a priority. Or to companies who do offer more progressive and flexible working practices.

The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that “An Equity Economics study found if the federal government provided 12 months of paid parental leave to be equally shared between parents, it would lead to an increase in gross domestic product of $116 billion by 2050, and that is just from higher female workforce participation and productivity.”

For the Ted Lasso fans, it’s time to be a goldfish with our current parental leave policies. We need to forget what’s come before, where incremental updates are applauded simply by comparison to what already exists.

Improving parental leave isn’t our responsibility. Yet we are a collective of creative minds that pride ourselves on innovation and value talent retention.

So perhaps we are not only best placed, but it’s also in our interest to take the lead in making important structural changes to parental leave policies. Where we can be part of a solution that can help influence greater home and workplace equality.

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