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Parental leave. ‘It’s not a gender issue’.

By David Pich CMgr FIML

To be clear, despite the provocative, attention-grabbing headline, parental leave is a gender issue. 100%.

In Australia, paid parental leave utilisation is massively skewed towards female workers. Between 90% and 96% of Australian workers who take parental leave are female, meaning that between just 4% and 10% are male. So, given this clear imbalance, why the title?

I’m fortunate to serve as the elected president of a community organisation that employs around 40 (mainly female) staff. Towards the end of 2020, the organisation undertook a review of key policies and we realised that our Parental Leave Policy was not fit for purpose. That description is itself incredibly generous – the policy was basically four or five pages of old fashioned management gobbledegook. A new, more progressive (and yes, I really hate that word – there should be nothing ‘progressive’ about basic, ethical policy that enshrines a level of equity!) approach was needed.

The executive committee of the organisation did what all good executive committees do; we looked at best practice in the industry, checked the appropriate legal frameworks and consulted with staff on our way to constructing a shiny, new Parental Leave Policy to replace the existing, eons-old Maternity Leave Policy. Out with the useless, eons-old, in with the nice and shiny new!

Or so I thought.

All new policies require the support of a majority of the full membership of the association. The ‘Shiny New Parental Leave Policy’ (SNPLP) was duly submitted to the membership for consideration in advance of the monthly general meeting.

And here’s what happened … two association members (both female) objected to the SNPLP. The objections are best summarised as follows (to be clear, these are my own interpretations of the objections, but I reckon they are pretty accurate);

  1. ‘I didn’t get a policy this generous* when I had my kids’.
  2. ‘Staff will intentionally get pregnant to take advantage of the policy and this will require sound leadership – what happens if future executive committees aren’t as good at leading as the current executive committee.
  3. ‘This isn’t a gender issue, it’s a financial issue; we can’t afford this policy’.

Each of these objections needed to be countered at the meeting. The first two were relatively simple.

Counter argument 1. The fact that you didn’t get the benefit of an ethical parental leave policy is terrible and your lived experienced – and its impact – is the exact reason why we must strive to do better and be better at every opportunity.

Counter argument 2. Elect decent leaders! It’s really that simple. (This applies just as well to politics!). And by the way, no-one’s getting pregnant to take advantage of a Parental Leave Policy. No-one. No matter how supposedly generous it might (or might not) be!

The third objection is more nuanced and requires further explanation.

The organisation has a significant financial reserve, steady income and turns a profit each year. In addition, the member who raised this objection had said on more than one occasion throughout 2020 that ‘we’ve raised enough money and we don’t need more’. Go figure! 

Here’s my real point – and the whole point of this article; parental leave is absolutely a gender issue. We can dress things up and hide behind excel spreadsheets as much as we like. But the decisions we make impact people, and – in the case of parental leave – the overwhelming majority of those people impacted are working women. Or women who would like to work, but can’t. Because organisations have chosen to dress things up and hide behind spreadsheets instead of doing the right thing. Obviously, ‘the right thing’ is entirely subjective. But that’s the point here, whilst when right and wrong are measured solely in financial terms the true cost is missed. That cost includes staff wellbeing and mental health as well as staff retention and the ability to retain our people. IML’s National Salary Survey – now in its 35th year of publication –  illustrates that it costs an average of $27,500 to recruit and onboard a new staff member. Putting figures like this into the mix when considering the financial impact of any policy is an absolutely critical role of the leader.

When right and wrong are measured solely in financial terms the true cost is missed.

Back at the meeting of the association, there was a vote. And the vote was carried. There were just two dissenting voices (a vote against and an abstention). The shiny new parental leave policy became the association’s official policy. By a quirk of timing and good fortune, two staff members announced that they were pregnant within a month of the adoption of the new policy. I’m delighted to say that they will be the first beneficiaries of the new policy.

Most importantly, it’s a policy that the association can afford. In fact, in terms of fairness and ‘doing the right thing’ for our staff we could not afford to stick with a policy that disadvantaged them. The overwhelming majority of whom are female.

Parental leave absolutely is a gender issue.

*The proposed policy was 12 weeks Parental Leave at full pay over and above statutory parental leave. I will leave you to decide whether this is worthy of the description ‘generous’.


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