Enough of the ‘double dipping’ double talk

In this opinion piece, Catherine Fox calls for an end to accusations that it’s unfair and inconvenient to give parents fair work opportunities.

Recently returned from a stint of parenting leave, a woman in a supervisory role attends a meeting with her team. Just before it starts, and in front of most participants, a colleague turns to her and loudly asks, “how was your holiday?”

Over the first few days of her return to the job it becomes apparent that resentment about her leave is not confined to just one of her team. A series of informal comments from a range of colleagues – of different ages – imply she’s been getting away with blue murder and leaving them in the lurch.

Backlash over women taking parental leave has been around as long as the option existed – an unpaid 12 months was introduced in 1979 and paid leave introduced in 2011 in Australia. While critics used to complain about keeping jobs open for mothers, now they’ve added cost and unfairness to the list.

The discussion is often framed as a woman’s, rather than a family or parents’, problem, and objections are rarely grounded on key data which reveal how our society and workforce has changed.

The importance of being with baby and returning to work

But things have changed. The World Health Organisation recommends 26 weeks of paid leave as the minimum standard for new mothers to bond with their newborn and establish breastfeeding, which is linked to positive long-term social outcomes.

Research by the Grattan Institute found that boosting Australian women’s workforce participation could add $25 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product, a strong reason to support mothers in returning to work.

These facts go to the heart of supporting mothers to be with children and to return work. But conversations about paid-parenting leave could have you thinking that paid work and the childbearing years should still be mutually exclusive, often focusing on paid leave being all about giving a leg up to a few women who could stay at home indefinitely if they really wanted to.

Statistics tell the story that not many mothers are in this position. Many women across all socio-economic areas have children, with 86 per cent of women having had a child by the age of 45, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006 Census of Population and Housing. And nearly 47 per cent of the workforce is female.

Due to economic and other factors – including the high levels of educated women in Australia – more mothers are remaining in paid work during those early years of parenting. The workforce participation rate for mothers who have children aged zero to five years increased 2.5 percentage points from 55 per cent in 2008-09 to 57.5 per cent in 2014.

The ‘double dipping’ misnomer

Australia’s national parental-leave pay program currently provides 18 weeks of pay at the minimum wage (currently $672.60 per week before tax) with some women also receiving a period of paid leave from their employer. The federal government is now looking at restricting program payments to one of these options, not both. The debate about these changes has included suggestions women are “double dipping” and taking more than they should.

However, compared to a range of other countries our offering looks quite modest. For example OECD data shows:

  • Britain offers 39 weeks of parenting leave at 90 per cent of the mother’s average weekly earnings for at least six weeks, then capped at £137 ($229) for the remaining 33 weeks.
  • Canada offers 50 weeks at 55 per cent of average earnings.
  • Sweden provides 60 weeks at 80 per cent of a mother’s earnings for 47 weeks and the remaining 13 weeks at SEK kr1260 ($183) a week.

So far, these arrangements, some of which have been around for years, don’t appear to have caused major business headaches.

And when you think about it, the income provided is designed to help with the extra cost of a baby – not so much a case of “double dipping” but covering double spending. Babies may be small but as any parent knows the costs they incur are the opposite (and go on well beyond the early months of life).

Encouraging women to stay in the workforce

Parenting leave isn’t a holiday; it’s hard work. It allows people who want to have kids – our future workforce, taxpayers and consumers – to step back into the workforce where they can continue utilising their skills and experience instead of stepping out of the workforce for a prolonged period or altogether.

The more women remain in continuous employment – without long breaks of unpaid leave – the more they can continue to pay taxes and accumulate retirement savings which means they are less likely to need a government pension in the future. It also allows a return on investment on education too, particularly as women consistently outstrip men in earning higher-education qualifications.

Some of the unease and criticism about parental leave is underpinned by very traditional and tenacious notions that good mothers always stay at home with their children and an ideal worker has no other responsibilities beyond their paid job.

These beliefs don’t reflect how most of us live but they have fed paid parental leave resentment and played a part in the level of maternal discrimination. A 2014 review by the Human Rights Commission found that almost one in two (49 per cent) mothers and more than a quarter (27 per cent) of fathers and partners reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace during pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work.

This isn’t just about snide comments, as the report reveals, but parents being sidelined, demoted or even losing their jobs.

There’s no doubt that workplaces need to effectively manage the transitions for mothers and fathers when they take paid parental leave and workloads do need to be adjusted. But women have been having babies and in paid work for a few decades now and that simply shouldn’t be a major challenge in modern, large and agile organisations.

I strongly believe that paid parental leave isn’t wasting government or business funds but preventing a significant and sustained loss to our nation’s productivity, efficiency and economy. It’s about taking a longer term perspective on what makes a healthy and fair society.

Enough with accusations that it is unfair, costly and inconvenient to give parents the opportunity to participate in the workforce and use their skills as their peers, while ensuring the future of the human race.