Paid parental leave changes will leave women behind, economists say

Ms Stark wants to see Australia’s parental leave extended beyond 20 weeks and better promote gender equality.

“We should aim for more of a Scandinavian model where a portion is assigned for the partner – except for single parents – to encourage a more equal use of the leave between parents,” she said.

Grattan Institute chief executive Danielle Wood said the new policy moved in the opposite direction from most countries around the world.

“My concern is that under the guise of flexibility, we will actually go backwards in terms of the progress in trying to share care a bit more evenly between men and women,” she said.

International experiences show use-it-or-lose-it schemes where a substantial portion of leave on offer is quarantined for fathers are the best way to significantly boost take-up.

Women’s Economic Security Minister Jane Hume said the proposed changes would reflect the individual differences in every family situation.


“Giving families greater choice and flexibility about managing work and care will boost women’s workforce participation, and enhance their economic security,” she said.

But Dr Jackson said while choice sounds good, “if you don’t design policy understanding how those choices are made, you risk inadvertently – or potentially intentionally – locking women into their role as society’s unpaid care workforce”.

Julie McKay, PwC’s chief diversity, inclusion and wellbeing officer, who is herself on parental leave currently, said while it was better for women if they ended up with two weeks extra leave under the changes, “it doesn’t shift that societal piece around how we actually get the role of men to change”.

The standout example for encouraging fathers to take paternity leave is Quebec, Canada, where the proportion of new dads taking leave rose to 80 per cent after it introduced five weeks specifically for them. Conversely, in Denmark when the fathers-only portion of the parental leave scheme was removed, the amount of time mothers spent on leave increased while uptake by partners stagnated.


But the government points to evidence in Australia that when private firms offer paid leave to both parents, fathers do use it.

The latest data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows 60 per cent of large businesses offer paid parental leave. Men account for 12 per cent of those taking primary carer leave.

In 2020-21 there were 168,167 women who received taxpayer-funded parental leave pay. In the same year, 89,784 people used the Dad and Partner Pay Leave Scheme – just over half the number of mothers on leave.

RMIT economics lecturer Leonora Risse said it was clear that offering leave was one thing, but without the right incentives in place, there was no guarantee of take-up.

“Many men struggle with the decision to take parental leave, even if it is on offer, because they’re concerned about how they might be professionally perceived,” she said.

Ms Stark says she and her husband are both incredibly lucky for having workplaces accepting of their need to take leave.

“If [Frederick] was in a situation that a lot of my female friends and their partners are in, which is it’s not socially acceptable within the culture of the office to take the leave, then they wouldn’t. You hear that a lot in law firms or finance,” she said.

Labor is yet to announce its paid parental leave policy, although shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers said on Wednesday the party was up for a conversation about improving it.

The opposition’s social services spokeswoman Linda Burney labelled the government’s changes “just tinkering around the edges of a scheme they’ve tried five times to slash”.

Jacqueline Maley cuts through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, views and expert analysis. Sign up to our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.

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