Over the past decade I’ve had four kids. With each addition, I’ve become more and more aware of the issues facing women (particularly regarding balancing paid work and caring roles) in Australia and thus with each one, I’ve become more and more of a feminist. Often feminists are stereotyped as being perpetually angry. But, at least until recently, when I reflected on the past decade it was heartening to see the very real advances in parental leave and associated practices in what is a relatively short space of time.
When I had my first child in 2004 I was pleasantly surprised that although many women had no access to paid parental leave (PPL) in Australia I was fortunate to have access to 12 weeks paid parental leave whilst I was completing my PhD on an Australian Postgraduate Award Scholarship. When I started my first “real job” in 2005 my partner became our son’s primary carer but as I was still breastfeeding my son (he was 9 months old) I scurried back home every lunch hour to feed him (but had barely any break for myself in the process). In 2007 when our second child was born I had access to 14 weeks PPL from my workplace which I took over 28 weeks at half pay. For both my first and second child we also got the “baby bonus”. When our third child was born in 2012 I was able to access not only my employer provided leave but the Commonwealth Government’s PPL Scheme. I thought it was wonderful that Australia had made the advance in 2011 under Julia Gillard to offer universal PPL (both as a safety net for those whose employers provided no paid leave and as an advance for those who already had paid leave from their employer). I was also able to access paid breastfeeding breaks. If I was still breastfeeding when I returned to work I would no longer needed to use my lunch breaks to feed my baby (or express) and barely have time to feed myself.
When I commenced maternity leave for the fourth (and final) time in late 2014 I still had access to both my employer provided PPL and the Commonwealth PPL Scheme and fresh out of the 2014 Federal Election it looked like Tony Abbott’s promise of 6 months leave on full pay for women would at the very least see further advances for Australia in PPL in the near future. How wrong that turned out to be! As Michael Bradley wrote in his brilliant opinion piece, just when the issue of PPL was beginning to be taken seriously, “the Abbott Government has changed the conversation from one of social good to one of entitlement”. The conversation has turned away from the importance of parental leave to ensuring gender equity and giving the best start to the nation’s children to labelling parents accessing both employer provided and the Commonwealth provided PPL scheme as akin to welfare cheats – parents sipping café lattes at the tax payer’s expense.
This week my youngest son turned six months old. Yesterday was my last day of paid parental leave (taken at half pay) provided by my workplace. As of Monday I’m officially going to be a “double dipper” accessing the Commonwealth Paid Parental Leave Scheme. If the Abbott government had its way and ensured that only one scheme (either employer paid leave or the Commonwealth PPL could be accessed) I would be back to work on Monday. I cannot fathom how hard that would be with a baby who is still fully breastfed, won’t take a bottle of expressed milk, has only just started on solids (spitting most of it out!) and still wakes several times each night! Returning to work now would clearly not be in the best interests of either myself or my son.
The Government’s neo-liberalist philosophy tends to individualise issues instead of looking at them from a broader societal perspective. When there is a housing affordability crisis we’re told to “get a better job” to solve the issue. Individualise paid parental leave and you get parents being labelled as sponging off the government. But take a societal perspective of PPL and you see that it is not about a free ride but about trying to give our kids the best start and ensuring parents can take time out of the workforce to achieve this.
Paid maternity leave is a basic entitlement that women in paid work should be able to access. Paid maternity leave has been enshrined in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the International Labour Organization’s Maternity Protection Convention 2000 (Maternity Protection Convention). In terms of child health and development, the World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding of infants until 6 month of age (where possible) and continuing breastfeeding into their second year. PPL is essential to fostering this recommendation. In 2009 Australia’s Productivity Commission wrote in a report into PPL that the benefits went beyond the individual “The gains do not only accrue to parents, as society often has to pay for health costs and other consequences of poorer outcomes for children and parents”. The report also cited an OECD publication which stated that “it seems that child development is negatively affected when an infant does not receive full-time personal care (breastfeeding issues aside…) for at least the first 6 to 12 months of his/her life”.
It is true (as the Productivity Commission points out) that there is no exact science for determining what the most appropriate period of paid parental leave is, however; international evidence seems to show we ought to be aiming for at least 6-12 months (and certainly not cutting leave options back by 18 weeks!). We also need to be thinking critically about parental leave that is specifically targeted at men. Countries that have enacted additional PPL entitlements which are available only to men (or the non-birth parent for same sex couples) have been shown to have the highest paternal participation rates in the world. In his recent piece on gendered jobs Paul Chai cites evidence that in Norway, since implementing PPL periods that can only be taken by men (or otherwise must be forfeited), not only has paternal involvement in caregiving increased, but rates of domestic violence have dropped by one third.
In Australia we are finally becoming aware of the extent to which domestic violence permeates Australian society (nearly one woman a week dies and nearly 1 in 6 have experienced violence from a current or former partner) and issues of gender equity seem more prominent in the media than ever before and yet we are being subject to cut backs across all areas of potential progress. Domestic violence shelters are losing funding, women may be means tested when they try to seek legal aid and now women trying to stay home longer with their babies are labelled social security rorters. What we desperately need is a wider, societal approach that looks beyond immediate budget savings to the bigger picture. As Norway shows there is a crucial intersectionality to these issues. We must start tackling gender equality from many different, yet interconnecting, angles. Adequate PPL for women AND PPL that is available for men (or non-birth parents), addressing (and properly funding programs for) domestic violence, helping women and men break into untraditional jobs (like getting more male childcare workers and more female tradies), strengthening flexible work conditions for parents to enable a more equal sharing of parental responsibilities, addressing the representation of women in parliament and leadership positions and breaking down other gender barriers and stereotypes.
It is 2015. It really is time for Australia to get serious on gender equality. If not now when? What are we waiting for? When will a real Minister for Women stand up?