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We need to start taking paternity leave seriously

Australia lags seriously behind in paternity leave. What is the fix?

Written by
Luke Ryan
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
May 15, 2024
min read
We need to start taking paternity leave seriously
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Over the past half a century, women’s work has undergone a seismic revolution. Yet the way men work remains stuck in the 1950s—and it's leading to depression, burnout, poor health and family breakdown.

As the coronavirus upends our assumptions about how work works, here's what we hope to see more of in the post-pandemic world.

What is paternity leave?

Paternity leave is the ability for men to take time off work—either paid or unpaid—to be the primary carer for a young child.

Why is it important?

Aussie men overwhelmingly say they want to be more involved with their kids, yet feel trapped by a working culture where two weeks of paid paternity leave is considered generous.

The government offers dads a fortnight of leave at the minimum wage, but only one in 20 men take advantage of it. The right to take a leave of absence of up to 12 months to look after your child applies equally to both parents, yet the uptake from men is almost zero.

And while it's becoming increasingly common for larger organisations to offer employees ungendered “paid primary carer's leave”, this is still overwhelmingly utilised by women: 90.3 per cent, versus 9.7 per cent for men.

Why are we behind?

Essentially, Australia needs to overcome its suspicion of men who look after their children. In one study, 27 per cent of men who took parental leave felt they were being actively discriminated against by their employer, while for others the binds are more internalised, but no less confining.

And if you want proof of that, here's a stat: dads keep working exactly the same number of hours in the year after their children are born as they did before – on average 45 hours a week.

It's a recipe for burnout, stress, and domestic tension.

But, as the coronavirus forces new dads to stay home, we could be witnessing the birth (so to speak) of a generation of fathers who won't accept such stark choices between career and family.

How do we fix it?

The Federal Government's paternity leave scheme is a good start, although it needs to do significantly more—our scheme is the second least generous in the OECD.

And while we wait for Canberra to get with the program, men need to accept that it's OK to want to spend time with our babies and that we should expect our employers to understand that.

The advantages aren't just for the dads either: studies have shown companies that offer strong parental leave schemes enjoy better recruitment and retention and have happier and more productive employees.

Who's doing it well?

The Swedes are the global leaders when it comes to this stuff, offering new parents a jaw-dropping 14 months of government paid paternity leave.

However, if you want to claim your full allotment, at least 90 days of that leave must be taken by the secondary parent—typically the dad. The result is a broad expectation that men will spend a significant amount of time caring for their children, which in turn has created a work culture that prioritises men's right to take leave without fear of damaging their career.

The Swedish government has entrenched this change by imposing a legislative right for all employees to reduce their work hours by 25 per cent until their kids turn eight.

And what price have the Swedes paid for such generosity? Well, they had one of the strongest economic growth rates in Europe over the last decade and are considered one of the best places to do business in the world.

So, uh, maybe they’re onto something?

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