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In the past half-century, it feels like the way women work and live has changed significantly and yet men’s working lives have largely stayed the same.
And the statistics - at least in the Australian context - appear to support this statement. In 1991, around 4% of Australian families with a child under eighteen had a stay-at-home father, yet in the most recent census (2016) that number was only 1% higher. In addition, census data collected by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that in families with at least one child aged under 12, only 4% of fathers work part-time in comparison to 40% of mothers. Furthermore, six in ten working fathers reported that they do not undertake any form of workplace flexibility at all – compared to 42% of mothers who do. In light of these data points, the Institute concluded that the average hours a man spends per week on work and domestic duties appears to change very little prior to and, following the birth of a child, however, the working patterns of a woman alter markedly. So why is it that when a family changes, the way men work and live doesn’t appear to change or adapt? Is it because as a society, we are telling men they shouldn’t?
A recent critical analysis by Australian political journalist, commentator and TV host, Annabel Crabb, provides a fresh perspective. Her paper, titled, Men at Work: The Australian Parenthood Trap (2019) examines the experience of men in the modern workplace, and explores why parental leave and flexible working is still largely reserved for women. Crabb wonders whether men don’t want to change, or whether there are barriers in place preventing men from changing the way they work?
Crabb argues that gender equity will not be achieved until men have the same opportunity and feel as supported as women to leave the workplace when their lives demand it. Further, she provides insights for organisations which aspire to provide more flexible and inclusive workplace practices for all parents – regardless of gender.
The aim of Crabb’s paper is to discuss the experience of men in the workplace and explore what is preventing men in Australia from taking parental leave or working flexibly.
Crabb’s paper draws from a range of sources and research, including academic literature and organisational case studies. Her writing style applies unique humour and witty political observation to discuss the barriers to flexible work, and assumptions about parental roles that men face both in society and in the workplace.
In her writing, Crabb highlights the policies and cultural expectations preventing men from changing the way they work. She also shares initiatives that a number of countries and companies have employed to encourage men to work and live differently.
In the section that follows, we spotlight a select number of case studies and insights from Crabb’s paper:
Insight 1: Differences in the perception of working mothers and fathers
In her paper, Crabb provides an insightful case study on the differences in perception of working mothers and fathers. When Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, announced her pregnancy, the media called into question how she could possibly manage both her duties to the country and her child. However, it largely went unnoticed when Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg became the first Prime Minister and Treasurer respectively, to be elected in Australia whilst also raising young children. In her role as a journalist, Crabb has had the opportunity to interview both men about how they manage their work responsibilities and families. Based on their responses, Crabb shares a number of important insights: Firstly, neither of these men were accustomed to being asked this question. Secondly, their spouses are responsible for most of the child care and domestic duties. In contrast to working men, working mothers with public profiles are regularly asked how they manage it all.
Using this example, Crabb highlights the different societal expectations put on working mothers and fathers and the importance of challenging traditional expectations to promote gender equity.
Insight 2: Differences in uptake of parental leave
Crabb also shares a number of compelling facts and figures relating to uptake of parental leave between fathers and mothers. For example, according to the latest figures from the Department of Social Services, only 6,250 men have claimed primary carer’s leave since the introduction of the national parental leave scheme in Australia, in comparison to over one million women. In the private sector, only one in twenty men claim primary carer’s leave. Crabb argues that the poor uptake of parental leave by men could be due to many factors. Firstly, many parental schemes offer leave only to the primary carer which in many cases has become culturally synonymous with the birth mother. Secondly, she also shares findings from a major survey of 1,000 Australian workers by Bain, which found that men who asked to work flexibly were twice as likely to be refused as women. The study found that many fathers also believed they would damage their chance of promotion if they were to work part-time. Based on this research, Crabb concludes that workplaces are more accepting of requests from women to work flexibly, but simultaneously less accepting of men wanting to do the same.
Using this example, Crabb suggests that the culture of many workplaces continue to promote the idea that only working mothers adopt the caregiving role. Consequently, men often don’t feel supported to claim parental leave or work flexibly and face the risk of damage to their reputation or career progression.
Insight 3: Men want to work flexibly
Through several case studies, Crabb argues that companies which introduce more flexible and equitable parental schemes and work policies attract more talent, retain their employees and increase employee engagement. She highlights a study from Medibank, an Australian health insurer, which introduced a novel parental scheme in 2018. The scheme offered either parent fourteen weeks of parental leave that they could claim at any time in the first two years of their child’s life – irrespective of whether the parent was the primary carer or not. And the results were astounding. Under the previous scheme, only 2.5% of Medibank employees claiming parental leave were men. Following the introduction of the new scheme, 28% were men. The average duration taken by fathers was eight weeks. Furthermore, employee engagement at Medibank was 4% higher among parental leave participants than their colleagues and retention rates also increased significantly. What was even more compelling about this case study, Crabb highlights is that the success of the policy was attributed to a culture at Medibank that already promoted flexible working. With 76% of the workforce already working flexibly in some way prior to the scheme’s introduction, taking a form of flexible working to care for young children was therefore seen more as the norm.
Using this example, Crabb argues that when the workplace culture is supportive and open to the concept of flexible work for all, more men will take that opportunity to the benefit of their workplace.
Ultimately, Crabb argues that whilst we have worked hard to empower women in the workforce to balance work and caring responsibilities, society will never truly achieve gender equity until men have the same flexibility as women and are as supported to leave the workplace when their lives demand it. To move the dial on this topic, organisations will need to consider cultural and systemic changes so that flexible working is more accessible and inclusive to all parents.
To read the full essay please click here.
To read more about Annabel Crabb, please click here.
For more information about this blog, please contact Jessie Gordon
Crabb, A. (2019). Men at Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap. Quarterly Essay, Black Inc.
Jessie Gordon is an Analyst in the Human Capital Consulting practice, with an interest in leadership and capability, diversity and inclusion, and culture change. Jessie comes from a background in psychology, mental health and wellbeing.