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Parental leave: Shift from gendered roles gathers pace

Parental leave: Shift from gendered roles gathers pace

By Carolyn Ford

COVID-19 Interviews Parents 


Maurice Blackburn sees the benefits of encouraging men to take Primary carer parental leave. The LIJ spoke to four caring dads.

It was 2009 and the then rising junior lawyer decided to take a year’s unpaid leave care for his one-year-old daughter. His wife, a policy analyst, returned to work. With the prohibitive cost of full-time childcare, and other considerations, the arrangement made sense. Jacob Varghese started something at Maurice Blackburn when he took parental leave. Not a sabbatical for higher learning. Not extended travel to parts unknown. Childcare.

“The firm was supportive, they let me do it, but there were a lot of suggestions I lacked ambition in my career,” recalls the firm’s CEO and, now, father of three.

“It was great, one of the best years of my life, getting that time with our first child.

“I think I had the easier year. A one-year old sleeps a lot. It was lovely, we hung out, did nice things, cooked dinner, kept house, cleaned. I had plenty to entertain me. Work doesn’t seem so important once you’re out of it. It’s nice having one person at home full-time in terms of how a house runs. And I’m a homebody.”

At times in his carer role, however, he felt patronised, uncomfortable, “like an interloper”.

“Some people were patronising, or called you a hero which I found more rankling, the suggestion you are doing something special . . . you’re not. I find it offensive from the perspective that it undervalues the work that many women have done, and also that people didn’t think I was competent.

“And with not a lot of male primary carer role models, there are broader cultural challenges. Most of the parental culture is directed at women, not men. Advertising is directed at mothers, there are mother’s groups.

“I found childcare very doable. There is nothing involved in looking after a kid that a man cannot do. The more men do it, the better.” 

It was a myth, he said, that taking time off showed a lack of dedication. “That is not true. We will look favourably on it. I’d be surprised if there were client concerns.

“We want to encourage men to take parental carer leave and spend time with their kids and support their partner going back to work.

“Women bear more responsibility for childcare. If that can be split more evenly you can expect career opportunities and pay to be better for women. If we want women’s careers to develop as successfully as men’s, then men have to not leave it to women to do all the home jobs.”

It was important senior legal executives led on this. “There is a role for law firm leaders to encourage men to do this for their spouses. Ultimately, the family unit will be better off because you have two flourishing careers.

“It can all be very hard to juggle, but we want it understood that you can have a good legal career and a life. We don’t own you. It’s front of mind for us that people have an appropriate balance between work and life.”

Mr Varghese’s time out more than a decade ago was to catalyse parental leave-taking by male lawyers at Maurice Blackburn.

Three of the firm’s nine male employees who have taken primary carer parental leave since 2018 are profiled here. All said knowing a senior male executive took time off to look after young children had encouraged them to do it, too, but the primary motivator was equitably supporting their partner’s career. The firm’s conditions were also a lure – 18 weeks on full pay, generous by industry standards. For secondary carers, it offers four weeks paid parental leave.

It seems some gendered workplace practices are making way for more inclusive ways of working for men and women. COVID-19 has further altered the landscape (See Who Cares?).

Daniel Victory
Daniel Victory with daughter, Eve

Daniel Victory

Daniel Victory, 34, applied for promotion at Maurice Blackburn in September 2018. He got it, becoming a principal in January 2019.

Nothing unusual about that – except he was on primary carer leave with his baby daughter Eve when he applied and back to work only a few weeks when notified of the successful outcome.

So much for the notion that men taking parental leave is a negative career move.

Not only was his firm supportive, clients were too, sending him hampers full of things he would need as a new parent and telling him “good on you”.

Daniel Victory’s wife Kara Sheehan is general counsel at Maurice Blackburn. When Eve was born in November 2017, she took the first shift of eight months, her husband the second of 18 weeks.

“The number one reason I did it was to get time with my daughter so she got to know me and I got to know her,” Mr Victory says.

“It was also the right thing to do, to support my wife’s return to work. Kara started at the firm in a new job when I started carer leave. With 18 weeks offered, it was financially possible.

“It’s always been my experience and plan to be an equal parent. It’s consistent with my world view, but also something I have taken for granted because of my dad.

“Growing up, my dad was very active and engaged, he was an equal parent. He didn’t leave everything to my mum. It’s fundamental to fairness and equality. You can’t have equality unless men take an equal part in parenting responsibilities.

“It’s something I would have done anyway, but the fact our CEO did it made me more comfortable and confident I would be supported, that it was not detrimental to my career.”

Mr Victory, who sees himself as part of the slow-moving shift away from gendered carer traditions, wasn’t daunted by the switch from office to nursery. He was excited at the prospect of being a stay at home dad.

“I saw her take her first steps. I learned about her sleep and food habits, what she likes and doesn’t like, what helps her calm down, all really valuable. It made her more comfortable with me, too. It gave me a chance to bond with her, and understand her better and that made me a better parent.

“I have lots of good memories of that time. I used to take her to swimming lessons, it was really fun, that was a highlight of our week.”

Mr Victory did, however, feel some anxiety and guilt about not assisting his clients for an extended period of time. “I like my job helping clients, there was guilt, but they were understanding and supportive.”

Eve is now two and a half and is in daycare three days a week. Mother and father share drop off and pick up. The couple are expecting their second child this year.

Lachlan Fitch with son Sam
Lachlan Fitch with son Sam

Lachlan Fitch 

Mid-morning on day one of Lachlan Fitch’s primary carer leave in March 2018, he tucked nine-month-old son Sam into his stroller and took him for a very long walk.

“I had to get him to go to sleep,” recalls Mr Fitch, 38.

And so began 18 weeks of being the primary carer of Sam, now three, and Zoe, now five, for the Greensborough-based principal lawyer. “I took carer leave to support my wife Anna, a marine research scientist, with her return to work, which was always the plan – it’s only fair. And I wanted to get involved in my kids’ lives in a hands-on way from early on,” Mr Fitch says.

“I knew our CEO Jacob Varghese had done it, so it was modelled by a senior executive. I asked if it was something I could do. Once I knew I could take it in the first 12 months, when Sam was a bit less dependent on Anna, it became a reality.”

Mr Fitch had no reservations about taking carer leave but he believes many men are worried about how they will be perceived by an employer or client if they put their hand up to take parental leave.

“Childcare and domestic work is still very gendered for a lot of people so a lot of men wouldn’t want to take the leave because they don’t see it as their role. They might think their employer had that traditional attitude to the roles of men and women in raising children and running the house. They might see it as affecting their career.”

There were challenges, but Mr Fitch loved spending time with his children and said he wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

“At that age, kids are very interactive and a lot of fun. I saw Sam exploring the world in the backyard, crawling for the first time. But there are challenges like endlessly washing reusable nappies and also the social isolation.

“You could go a whole day and all you’d said was, ‘what have you got in your mouth?’ over and over.

“It was an eye-opening experience but a very good one to have for a better appreciation of the work involved in raising kids, but also being a better parent. I know a successful excursion out of the house needs a lot of planning.

“It was very special, you don’t get it again,” Mr Fitch says, adding he returned to work with mixed emotions.

“I was very ready to go back and engage with colleagues and opponents. But I was also sad to not be spending time with Sam and Zoe and caring for them. I missed being able to chat with them.”

Mr Fitch is now back to full-time work. His wife works three days a week. Between them they juggle childcare between kinder, school, flexible work and grandparents.

Michael Thorne with Harris

Michael Thorne

Harris Thorne turned one in February. By then, he had been looked after by his mother Erin Thorne, a company secretary, and his father Michael Thorne, an associate at Maurice Blackburn, almost equally.

When the couple learned they were to be parents, Mr Thorne, a later lawyer, investigated the firm’s related entitlements and found them to be generous. He knew CEO Jacob Varghese had taken leave to look after his children, easing his mind about its impact on his career, and the couple agreed to share care of their first-born.

 “My wife has a career. She took carer’s leave, then to avoid disrupting her career, she returned to work and I took 18 weeks primary carer leave. It was about minimising time out of her role; she did that for us,” says Mr Thorne, 34.

 “When Harris went on to formula, it became possible for me to do the whole suite of jobs so I took over.

“I didn’t want to miss it. You go to work, come home, see them for an hour then they go to sleep. That’s five days a week. I wanted a good solid chunk of time with him, to create a bond.

“He was a good baby, slept 7-7 from early on, a good eater, switched on, pretty easy. Worst thing he had was nappy rash. I really, really enjoyed it. I’d definitely do it again.

“After 18 weeks with him he was daddy’s boy. His first word was ‘dada’. Spending that much time with a child, meeting all their needs, has to change something. They respond to you differently.”

Mr Thorne said he struggled to see why it should not be the case that both parents take primary carer’s leave. “Children have to be raised so you give it to the person raising the child, which is not always the mother.”

Gender stereotypes, conscious or otherwise, may play a role in stopping men from applying or even thinking about applying, Mr Thorne says, or some may just prefer not to do it. “It’s not easy looking after a baby. Sometimes it’s harder than a job [where] there’s certainly far less screaming.

“Usually the sticking point is that the entitlement doesn’t exist, but we have the opposite here. The firm has done everything it can.”

Telling clients, many of whom were older, was interesting. Generally, men said, "see you in 18 weeks". Women said "oh great, you will love it". And during the time away he was supported not patronised.

“When you have a child that young you are not leaving the house much. When I did, it was to see the maternal child health nurse. People were pleasantly surprised that a man was a primary carer. It was more praise than anything. Things are starting to shift.

“In my family it’s normal for the men to be carers and generally share the load. My father-in-law babysits for us. My father was a school teacher of young kids so he was involved as well.”

Grandparents help with the juggle that is childcare now both parents are back to full time work.

Back in the office, Mr Thorne joined a new team, medical negligence. In a good way, he says, it was like he’d never left, and certainly hadn’t been held back professionally. But it was tough leaving Harris.

“All my screensavers are photos of him [and golf courses]. I miss him.” ■

Who cares?
Fathers/partners taking parental carer leave is good for children and for women’s labour market outcomes, says the Diversity Council of Australia (DCA).
In Australia, as in the majority of OECD countries, the use of paid parental leave by fathers/partners remains very low – less than 5 per cent – meaning women continue to take the greater share of time out of the workforce to look after children, according to the DCA. ABS data from 2017 showed one in 20 fathers took primary parental leave in the private sector in companies of 100-plus employees.
Australia offers two weeks government-funded father/ partner leave around the birth/adoption of a child.
Employers played a key role in normalising the uptake of fathers/partners taking parental leave and flexible working arrangements to meet caring responsibilities, the DCA said.
If available, fathers/partners tended to take employer paid parental leave rather than government funded parental leave, reflecting the generosity of employer schemes. Workplace Gender Equality Agency [WGEA] data reports male managers are more likely to take paid primary carer leave than non managers; manager – female, 91.6 per cent, male 8.4 per cent; non-manager – female 95.6 per cent, male 4.6 per cent.
Further says the WGEA, men who take parental carer leave are more likely to continue doing childcare and unpaid domestic work after the parental leave period. 
During COVID-19, many employees are required to work from home. Given this, says the WGEA, increased workplace flexibility and greater ongoing involvement of men in care and unpaid domestic work are hypothesised to be among the potential effects of the COVID-19 crisis. "These effects would have important impacts on gender equality. Flexible work practices can contribute to more sharing of care and domestic work and further support women's increased labour force participation," says the WGEA.


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