Leave scheme strikes at stay home mums

New parental leave scheme may disadvantage women if they stay home for up to two years.

Compulsory paid paternity leave and a salary replacement income for parents could be the key to promoting gender equity, according to a leading feminist academic.
Dr Marian Baird, associate professor of Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney, says the new parental leave scheme may disadvantage women if they stay home for up to two years.

The new parental leave scheme comes into effect in January and gives mothers and fathers up to 12 months unpaid parental leave. But if one parent doesn’t take up the entitlement the other can request an extension of another 12 months.

Dr Baird delivered recently the Clare Burton memorial lecture in Sydney where she questioned whether the new parental leave scheme is a good policy in promoting gender equity. She believes that employers might discriminate against women who stay away from the workforce for too long.

Dr Baird told Neos Kosmos English Edition that the lack of suitable childcare policies in combination with long absences from the workforce can stall a woman’s career.

“If a woman stays out of the workforce for too long she loses her skill and workforce competencies,“said Dr Baird. She also expressed concern about entrenching gender roles if women continue to be the primary care-givers for extended periods of time. She points out, however, that most women stay home for a period of nine to twelve months after the birth of a child and she doubts that the majority of women will take advantage of the two years leave.

Her views seem to resonate with professional women. Helen Antoniades, a psychologist, decided to stay home for twelve months for each of her 2 children, aged five and two.

“If I had the opportunity to stay away from work for two years I probably wouldn’t do it for all sorts of reasons but mainly because my career is important to me and it would be important to me to continue with the career goals I set before I had children. I’d be keen to re-establish my career goals. Also from a psychological point of view I need to be with other professionals.”

Ms Antoniades thinks that a lot depends on the type of career a woman has and also her finances. She is also mindful of the effects a long break from a career would have on women. “Staying away for too long can also affect your professional confidence and the sense of achievement that comes when having a successful career,” she says.

Dr Baird believes that fathers should be given incentives to take up paternity leave and the best way to achieve this is to make paternity leave compulsory and paid.
Compulsory paid paternity leave, which ranges between 3 and 15 days, is available in Belgium, Portugal and Slovenia while Norway and Canada provide unpaid paternity leave entitlements.

One of the Productivity Commission’s recommendations was for paid paternity leave to be made available in Australia.

Dr Baird believes that paternity leave can be effective if it’s on a “use it or lose it” basis and it’s combined with income above the minimum wage. Providing parents who stay home with a salary comparable to their earnings is a measure that Dr Baird advocates should be examined by all parties involved.

Ms Antoniades agrees that if paternity leave is tied to these sorts of incentives fathers are more likely to stay home for longer periods of time and help with raising the children.

“More often than not the men are the bread-winners in a family, they are the ones with higher incomes. So for a woman to stay at home after a baby arrives makes a lot of sense from a financial point of view as the system stands” she says.

Dr Baird says that the arrangement of paid parental leave on a minimum wage level is not adequate. “Most households need more than minimum wages to live on. What we need to look at is policies that increase the minimum wage level to a replacement wage level and that means encouraging employers and unions to bargain over that issue,” Dr Baird said.

The federal government is yet to legislate on the promised 18 weeks paid maternity leave. The announcement was made in May but working families will have to wait until January 2011 for the scheme to take effect.