Aussie dads are missing out on parental leave

Social pressure and workplace culture are preventing fathers from using flexible working hours to take parental leave, new research from the University of South Australia suggests.

Australia has one of the lowest rates of parental leave taken by men, who represent less than 1% of parental-leave recipients, despite Australia’s national Paid Parental Leave scheme being gender neutral.

The researchers, led by Dr Ashlee Borgkvist, investigated barriers men face when accessing flexible work arrangements, and found that many fathers felt pressure from their organisation or workplace to not use that flexibility for family reasons.

Borgkvist explains that this is primarily due to perceived, and sometimes objective, lack of support from managers and colleagues, but reflects a societal view of masculine norms.

“Workplace flexibility is typically accepted as an option for mothers, but when it comes to dads, flexibility is unlikely to be as readily accepted – and in some cases not even considered,” says Borgkvist.

“Workplace and societal norms play a big role in the lack of flexibility for dads, with many men feeling pressure to conform to stereotypical concepts of the male ‘breadwinner’ – they’re applauded for earning the dollars to support their family but frowned upon if they consider flexibility to do the same.

“Concerningly, many new fathers feel they need to prove their commitment to the job by purposely avoiding flexibility, or in some instances, taking on more hours when they become a new father. They may also take on more hours because they are feeling financial pressures.”

This means that fathers may miss out on crucial bonding stages with their child, which are often carried throughout their life and have positive outcomes for that child’s future.

“Some fathers are trying to be more flexible – say, for example, by coming into work late after dropping the kids at school – but they’re also very aware of the need to visibly minimise their time away from paid work,” says Brogkvist. “Of course, this can depend on the workplace, but even where workplaces have flexibility policies, there is often an unspoken, or cultural, discouragement of dads taking time away from work for family reasons.

“One father I spoke to said he’d stepped back from visiting schools with his wife and child because he felt he’d taken too much time off. Another father said he wouldn’t ask for flexibility because he didn’t want to be seen as someone who tries to get out of doing work.

“So, while the desire and need for flexible work hours is there, it’s being squashed by restrictive workplace cultures. As you can imagine, these ideas around flexible work also have impacts for how women who use flexibility are perceived within workplaces.”

In Australia, only 2% of organisations have active set targets to improve men’s participation in flexible work, and despite the flexible work arrangements introduced during COVID-19, few organisations have adopted these arrangements long-term.

“To initiate change in relation to dads’ use of flexibility, and parental leave in particular, cultural change is vital,” says Borgkvist. “But this can only be achieved when we have strong social policies supported by business practice.

“Evidence shows that when fathers are provided with well-compensated, targeted and extended parental leave, they are very likely to take it.

“Australia is very conservative when it comes to fathers and parental leave. Only when governments and businesses can commit to tangible and practical change will we see flexibility become a real option for Aussie dads.”

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