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Paid Parental Leave – who is left holding the baby?

27 minutes


Marian Baird

The University of Sydney

Sam Page

Early Childhood Australia

Episode Notes

When you think back to your childhood, who do you remember spent the most time doing the day-to-day care? The most common answer to that question historically, would be mum. But in 2022, is that beginning to change? In Australia right now, a carer can access up to 90 days of paid leave within the first year of giving birth to, or adopting a child. But that’s only for the primary caregiver. In this episode, Professor of Gender and Employment Relations, Marian Baird, from the University of Sydney, discusses Australia’s current Paid Parental Leave schemes. Do they work for all caregivers? What needs to change? And how can we learn from more successful schemes being implemented overseas?


Ginger Gorman (host) (00:01): 

If you’re listening to our pod, I’m going to assume you have an interest in the social sciences. So you might be keen to know about Social Sciences Week occurring every September from the 5th to the 12th of September this year. It offers exciting in person and online events from a wide range of universities and organizations, including topics on climate change, psychology, education, and so much more. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (00:25): 

Honestly, there is something for everyone, secondary school students, anyone with an interest in the social sciences and academics as well. The week is officially supported by RMIT University, visit to see their events and many more. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (00:46): 

When you think back to your childhood, who do you remember spent the most time doing the day-to-day care? Not the fun stuff. I mean, the rest of it. Stuff like feeding you, laundry, getting you to and from school. Every family is different, but the most common answer to that question historically, would be mum. But in 2022, is that beginning to change? 

Professor Marian Baird (01:13): 

Our research suggests that this is where real change is occurring and younger fathers, younger men really do want to participate and at least have some opportunity to share the care with their partners. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (01:27): 

Marian Baird is a Professor of Gender and Employment Relations in the discipline of Work and Organization Studies at the University of Sydney Business School. She’s also a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. A couple of years ago, her team did a study asking working Australians, aged between 16 and 40, what they saw as important for their future success at work and as working parents. 

Professor Marian Baird (01:54): 

One of the most interesting ones to me is that we found that young men with a child or married and expecting a child, were willing and wanting to share the care almost as equally as their female partners were. So we said we can see a convergence of expectations between young male and female parents. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (02:19): 

That definitely reflects the attitudes of men that I know, particularly the younger ones. 

Tom (02:24): 

My daughter is nearly three years old now and I currently spend a day a week at home with her. My wife and I always had an idea of spending as much time at home with her as possible. And that I too wanted to spend a few days at home with her, my wife went back to work after six months. And from that time I’ve always had two or three days at home with her until recently. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (02:57): 

Tom owns a small business, which makes it easier for him to set his schedule around caring for his daughter. But it also meant working on weekends to catch up. But not every dad or secondary carer can get the parental leave that they want to take. 

Professor Marian Baird (03:12): 

Having access to Paid Parental Leave, childcare and flexibility at work, in that order, were the three most important workplace supports. And we really see this as a major shift. Those men who have got that idea in their head about having a family or have one child are really starting to say, “Yes, I want to work and care for my children.” 

Ginger Gorman (host) (03:39): 

That is a big shift from the Australia that I grew up in, but is parental leave policy keeping up with the changing attitudes? It’s been more than a decade since Australians got a Paid Parental Leave Scheme. 

Professor Marian Baird (03:53): 

That scheme introduced by the Labor Party in 2010 represented a very significant shift in the work and family policy base in Australia. And I don’t think the impact of the introduction of that scheme should be underestimated. At the time the introduction of the Paid Parental Leave Act filled a major gap in our policy framework and provided for over 50% of women in the workforce, who previously had no access to any Paid Parental Leave, provided them with 18 weeks, albeit at the national minimum wage. But prior to that, there was nothing for those women. So it really represented a major step forward. Or as we say, a giant leap. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (04:42): 

But so little has changed since then that professor Marian Baird says that giant leap looks more like baby steps. 

Professor Marian Baird (04:51): 

A scheme like that is probably never perfect. And if we look around the world, we see that parental leave schemes are currently and constantly under review. They’re not static schemes, they’re dynamic. They respond to the changes in our understandings of our gender relations, of expectations of employers and governments and the changing demographics in our workforces and populations. So what do I mean by the baby steps that have happened since then? Well, for about 10 years, almost nothing happened. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (05:30): 

This is Seriously Social, I’m Ginger Gorman. And 12 years on from the introduction of government funded Paid Parental Leave, who’s left holding the baby? 

Ginger Gorman (host) (05:57): 

At the moment in Australia, a primary caregiver can access 18 weeks or 90 days paid leave within the first 12 months of the birth or adoption of their child. It’s means tested, which means you are not eligible if you make more than about $156,000 a year. And you have to meet a work test, which essentially means you have to have worked at least one day a week for 10 of the 13 months leading up to the birth or adoption. A lot of corporate public service and NGO employers also offer around three months paid leave, which people can claim on top of the government leave scheme. So, there are a lot of parents in Australia who can stay at home for at least the first six months of their baby’s life. 

Professor Marian Baird (06:45): 

Approximately 50% of Australian women now will have access to two forms of Paid Parental Leave. One will be the government scheme and the other, their employer scheme. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (06:57): 

Then again, there are still a lot of parents in Australia who don’t have access to paid time to bond with their child. And a lot of those parents are fathers. 

Professor Marian Baird (07:07): 

There was one quite important change in 2012, which commenced to then in 2013 and that was the introduction, through the amendment to the scheme, of the dad and partner pay provisions. And they provide fathers and same-sex partners with two weeks of parental leave pay at the national minimum wage. And that was an important addition, but as we’ll come back to hasn’t really achieved what perhaps it set out to do. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (07:42): 

The dad and partner pay set out to give dads and secondary carers time to bond with their newborn and help the primary carer, who in most cases is the birth mother. That’s what Tom, our self-employed dad we heard from earlier did. And after that, he was on his own. 

Tom (08:00): 

Yeah, I had the two weeks Paid Parental Leave at home, but once that ended any extra time I took off work was coming out of wages. So for me as self-employed, if I had enough in the bank, I could cover those wages. But I suppose for an employee’s point of view, or if the business had a slow month or a slow two months, then it would’ve been a lot trickier to cover my wage and I might not have been able to spend that time at home. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (08:27): 

Tom’s observation is that dads aren’t encouraged, or perhaps even expected, to share the load equally. He sees Paid Parental Leave as a way of helping dads become more hands-on parents. 

Tom (08:41): 

Almost like they start on the bench. When the mums have the time off work and extended time off work, sometimes I feel like the dads are just on the bench and you need something to get yourself more involved. I think it’s quite easy to fall into the habit of primary caregiver and the partner who works. I think that’s quite an easy scenario to fall into. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (09:11): 

The Paid Parental Leave Scheme and the dad and partner pay create a clear division of labour. It reinforces the idea that in every two parent family, there is a primary caregiver and a secondary caregiver. 

Professor Marian Baird (09:25): 

First of all, in Australia, we are currently having quite a debate amongst businesses and employers, unions, parents around the language of primary and secondary carer. And that notion of a secondary carer sets up this idea that the father, usually, is not as important in the care. And we can see that coming through in the design of the scheme. 

Professor Marian Baird (09:47): 

The other aspect of the scheme is that two weeks signals really time to help the mother and the new baby settle immediately after the birth. And that came through really strongly in our interviews with parents during the review of the Paid Parental Leave Scheme. So it’s not really two weeks signaling that, “Yes, you are involved in the ongoing upbringing and care of this child, but you are involved in helping the new mother and baby settle.” And I think that’s really one problem with the current design, if you like. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (10:25): 

It is probably no surprise to learn that the countries with the most equitable schemes are in Northern Europe. 

Professor Marian Baird (10:32): 

In the Scandinavian countries where there’s much more emphasis on working out how do we enable both parents to share in the care of babies and infants? There are much longer periods of leave for both parents. It’s usually set aside a portion for each parent, and there’s also an incentive if they both use that leave, the family unit gets more leave. So we’re not really there in Australia in terms of the federal scheme, at this stage. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (11:05): 

Because often laws are setting community expectations around a particular issue, and to me, when I was taking maternity leave around my babies and my then-husband was only able to take two weeks, that’s the community expectations saying, “That’s the only role dad needs to have here.” Dad can then go back to work and do his “proper job.” The baby’s your job. 

Professor Marian Baird (11:31): 

That’s right. Now, I think laws are very important for setting national norms, if you like, or expectations, and particularly the Paid Parental Leave Scheme, because we hadn’t had anything before it really put a new marker in the ground. So that sense of, first of all, it was only for mothers or the primary carer. And then later we added two weeks for fathers, did set up this notion of, “Well, are fathers really as important to that early period of a baby’s life.” 

Professor Marian Baird (12:06): 

Having said that, I also think we have to remember, this is a government scheme and it’s funded from general revenue. And that does make us different from many of the European and Scandinavian countries where the funding comes from social insurance schemes. So there is that sort of caveat that we have a different funding model. And the Australian scheme was always designed with employers in mind as well. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (12:34): 

What are the structural barriers that prevent, primarily dads, from having a bigger role in caring for their kids in those very early years? 

Professor Marian Baird (12:43): 

There are two parts to that answer, really. One is the Parental Leave Scheme itself. And we’ve talked about that. The structure of that scheme doesn’t really encourage or enable fathers, or partners, to take a long period of leave. The other side is the workplace itself. And in the workplace, we can see quite strong structural barriers, although there are changes occurring. But on the whole, and what we found in our research when we were reviewing the use of the scheme, employers are not yet ready to provide long periods of leave for fathers or partners. They’re quite open to the two weeks around the birth, but not for a longer period of leave. And from their point of view, business operations or the way in which the business is run, is not set up to enable those long periods of leaves by fathers as yet. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (13:37): 

So it’s hard to convince employers to give men access to parental leave. And when it comes to expanding a taxpayer funded scheme, it’s also hard to convince the people who will never use the scheme. Sometimes it’s a side eye coming from colleagues who think of your two days off a week as a “long weekend.” And we’ve all heard cranky-talk back callers saying, “People choose to have children and why should my taxes pay for blah, blah, blah, blah.” The thing is Paid Parental Leave is about the collective, not just the individual. 

Professor Marian Baird (14:14): 

This is quite a critical question that we used to get asked a lot, but seems to have dropped off the agenda lately. The main reason is to say that if, as a society, we want women and men to be able to work and to care, not just because we believe that in terms of equality reasons, but also economic reasons, then we need to provide policies that enable that to happen. And parental leave is one of those key policies. Without women’s engagement, as parents in the workforce, the Australian labour market will be smaller, the country will be poorer. 

Professor Marian Baird (14:56): 

Without parental leave that provides some ability for women and men to form families, the Australian population will not grow. And in fact, we are in a little bit of a period at the moment, where fertility rates are very low and we are looking at stagnant or declining workforce size. So these are critical issues, not just for us as individuals, but it is an issue that we all have to think about if we want our own country to prosper and grow. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (15:29): 

It strikes me that so far, this conversation has been about the impact of Paid Parental Leave on parents. And when you’re trying to convince governments, and by extension voters, to supplement the wages of both lower and middle income earners, just because they want to start a family, I can see why not everyone is on board. But what if we look at it as a benefit paid to the child? 

Sam Page (15:53): 

It is good for parents, but it particularly benefits the babies themselves, providing them with a really solid start. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (16:03): 

Sam Page is the CEO of Early Childhood Australia. 

Sam Page (16:07): 

We know the Paid Parental Leave works. So a lot of public policy is a bit of a guessing game. We can put things out there, but we don’t know whether they’re going to be taken up. Whereas what we found when we introduced Paid Parental Leave is that it immediately extended the time that parents stayed at home with their babies. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (16:25): 

This was the desired effect of the policy. The return to work is somewhat delayed during the first few months, but not in the long run. A 2014 review of the Paid Parental Leave by the University of Queensland found that the scheme’s main effect is that mothers who otherwise would’ve returned to work in months one to three, now return in months four to six. 

Sam Page (16:49): 

So we know when we make Paid Parental Leave available to parents in Australia, they take it, they use it. They’ll stay at home and give that time to their children. And that’s really important to have a public policy that we know works. We also know that that impact was most pronounced amongst families on lower incomes, mothers with lower levels of education and parents who had been on casual contracts before their baby was born. And so we know that we are really helping the families where children might be at risk of longer term educational disadvantage by providing those parents with the opportunity to stay at home and spend that time with their children. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (17:31): 

How does it benefit babies to have a parent at home in those first few months? 

Sam Page (17:35): 

The development of a secure attachment between the child and its parents or carers, in that time immediately following birth, in those early, early months is really critical for long term health and wellbeing. When we get that right we strengthen families, we know those children are likely to have less health and mental health issues, long term, more likely to make a smooth transition into education, more likely to continue and finish their education. And that’s in everybody’s interests. So everybody benefits, not just the child themselves, not just the family, but the whole of society, and that pays dividends. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (18:13): 

According to the Grattan Institute, a 26 week Paid Parental Leave Scheme, paid at the minimum wage, one that is shared evenly between co-parents, could cost the government around 600 million a year. But the increased workforce participation by primary parents would add $900 million a year to GDP. 

Sam Page (18:38): 

We also know that we’ve got relatively low workforce participation amongst women with children in Australia. So workforce participation for women is currently at around 74% compared to 82% for men. And yet we have the most educated population of women than we’ve ever had. So we have more women graduating university, more women working in the workforce before they have children and yet we are not getting workforce participation, matching men after children come along. And that’s a problem for all of us. 

Sam Page (19:15): 

So it means for the women themselves, they’re compromised in terms of their lifetime earnings and their superannuation. So women are likely to retire with less superannuation than men, likely to be less financially independent or if financially settled, by the time they retire they’re more likely to spend more time in casual and part-time work despite being just as well educated and just as experienced in the workforce prior to having children. So we have an interest in equalizing that, I think. As a society, we have an interest in equalizing workforce participation. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (19:51): 

And Sam Page says when families have an opportunity to share the parental responsibilities more evenly, that also pays dividends. 

Sam Page (20:00): 

There are three really good reasons for this. One is that it allows both parents to form a strong bond with the baby, and that’s important. It also establishes a pattern of shared responsibility for children from the early months, which is important too, particularly if we’re aiming to equalize workforce participation between men and women. So both parents taking responsibility and taking time out of their career to spend time with the child is important. And it means that both parents can balance the time they spend with the child with their retaining a workforce connection. So if both parents make use of paid parental leave, then both parents can reestablish their connection to the workforce and gradually return to work. Rather than that being one parent has to stay at home all of the time while the other parent has to work full time. That’s really not ideal for either parent or for the child. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (20:52): 

So how do we convince employers that giving new parents access to extended leave or part-time work is worth it? A bit of empathy helps. 

Tom (21:01): 

I think because I’d just been through it recently gave me a much different perspective as an employer. When someone came to me wanting some time off after their first born was in the world and I looked at it through a different lens that I wanted to give as much support as possible to help him stay at home for as long as he could and as long as the family felt comfortable with. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (21:26): 

But ultimately we need policies to achieve legitimate change, even if those policies aren’t coming from lawmakers. 

Professor Marian Baird (21:34): 

What we are seeing in Australia in the absence of any government leadership on this for a decade, we are seeing some of the private corporates really stepping up to the mark. But I have to say, these are those companies who want to attract skilled workers and who want to retain those workers and who are often working in highly profitable sectors. And those companies are starting to introduce policies which do provide equally for mothers or fathers or partners. 

Professor Marian Baird (22:05): 

And what’s interesting there is that they have abandoned that differentiation between primary and secondary carer. They’ve made their parental leave policies available to all, they’re paid at replacement wages, which is a huge difference. And they’re often for quite long periods of time. And when that is  introduced, those companies are seeing their males, the males who work in them, use the policy. So we do know that if you change the policy, behaviour will change. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (22:36): 

Can you give me an example of companies that are doing that kind of work? 

Professor Marian Baird (22:42): 

Yes. For example, Telstra has been one of the leaders in making their policy much more generous and opening it up to men and women or same sex partners in the company. And they have seen a huge uplift amongst, especially the fathers within the company, in using that scheme. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (23:02): 

But that is a lot more accessible to a company like Telstra than say, your local pizza shop. 

Professor Marian Baird (23:08): 

That’s right. Look, we know from the research that the provision of Paid Parental Leave is segregated, if you like. There’s the top end of the market, those companies, I mentioned Telstra, but there are a host of others, often in the consulting, the big four, the accounting firms who are able to provide that. The university sector does provide very generous leave, but not all universities provide it equally for both parents. And we are currently seeing some debates around that at the moment. So it tends to be a sectoral approach where you see this more generous and equal sharing of parental leave provisions. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (23:54): 

Recently, the country’s largest employer, the New South Wales State Government, introduced a scheme that looks a lot like it could have come straight from a Scandinavian country like Finland. 

Professor Marian Baird (24:06): 

Yeah. So this is one that maybe is a slight surprise for many people, but in New South Wales, the government, the New South Wales State Government recently introduced changes to their parental leave for public servants. So it’s not for everyone who lives in New South Wales, but their public service. Now that is a huge group of people. They’re the biggest employer in Australia and I think the Southern hemisphere, covers all their teachers, firefighters, ambulance, health, et cetera. 

Professor Marian Baird (24:35): 

Now, in the past, those public servants had access to 14 weeks for the primary carer. What the government has introduced is 14 weeks for each parent, plus two weeks, if both parents share the care. So we are seeing a little more of a touch of that Scandinavian model coming into the New South Wales Government model and I think that will be a space to watch, for two reasons. 

Professor Marian Baird (25:01): 

One, we may see other states starting to replicate, follow the lead of the New South Wales Government and introduce those provisions for their own public servants. We saw that happen about a decade and a bit ago when they all started to increase the leave they provided. But it also sets a new benchmark for the private sector to now consider this form of model. But there are many firms, small businesses or medium sized businesses, who don’t have that extra surplus, or that cultural awareness, or ability to provide that extra leave. And for that reason, the government scheme is critical. It does provide a baseline. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (25:44): 

With this groundswell for change that’s coming from the corporate sector, from the early childhood sector, and from the secondary carers themselves, where do we see the policy in another 10 years? 

Professor Marian Baird (25:56): 

Look, I think parental leave is one of those policies that, I mean, it’s why I love researching it because it is always changing. And as I said at the beginning, it’s not a static policy. And what we’re seeing happening in Australia is really what we see happen around the world. There’s constant discussion about these policies. And remember there are other factors that are starting to play in. Workforce shortages put a lot of pressure on us to want more women in the paid workforce. We also have declining fertility rates. So these two issues, plus aging populations, that combination means governments are looking for policies that will stimulate workforce engagement and stimulate population growth. So we do need to think about policies that enable that to happen. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (26:44): 

Thanks for listening to Seriously Social, I’m Ginger Gorman. If you’re enjoying the podcast, one of the best ways to support us is to subscribe. And if you listen through Apple podcasts, drop a review in there for us as well, we love reading them and it helps other people find us. Seriously Social is produced by Kim Lester, engineered by Mark Gageldonk, AKA Baldey, and executive produced by Sue White and Bonnie Johnson. It’s an initiative at the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (27:13): 

Next time, how does climate change impact the finances of everyday Australians? And don’t forget about Social Sciences Week from the 5th to the 12th of September, a week-long series of events, offering insight into the impact of the social sciences on our lives. Visit for more. 

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