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when maternity leave isn’t enough

Recent reforms and policy decisions related to maternity leave may be to the delight of women throughout Australia, but new research shows that such policies do not overcome the serious wage toll suffered by women who decide to take time off work in order to be the primary carer of a child.

Paid parental leave is an important piece of public policy. Currently in Australia, families where the primary provider of a newborn child (usually the mother) must take time off from employment in order to fulfill their duties of care are eligible to be paid for up to 18 months at the national minimum wage rate. Also available is the baby bonus, where the government gives new parents a lump sum payment to help families pay for the costs of a newborn child.

Such schemes are important because it gives one parent the ability to take time off from work to take care of a child without a devastating loss of income, or it gives new parents some extra financial resources in order to provide for a new baby where the costs associated with the process are usually substantial. Importantly, being able to ‘leave’ work temporarily in order to have a baby and then reintegrating oneself back into the workplace with no huge financial toll paid for doing so is a great option for women who are usually still expected to be the primary care-giver but still highly value their career.

However, recent research from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey has shown that there are other costs women usually bear when taking maternity leave. These costs are hidden and unfortunately public policy does little to ease this burden. Statistically, women who take maternity leave are:

  • More likely to miss out on formal training and educational opportunities related to their work when looking after their child.
  • Are more likely to miss out on promotions as employers unjustifiably see them as being less committed to their employment than other women who do not take leave or men who by and large do not take leave.
  • Earn about four per cent less on average when they return to work than what they would have if they had not taken leave, equating to $1,566 a year in foregone wages per person.

Clearly, problems still abound for women who want to both have children and be taken seriously in the workforce. Partly, this is an equity issue because it is usually the mother of a family who is expected to take leave, not the father.  What emerges is that women often have to make a choice between having a family and career progression, while men are able to have both since they, on average, dedicate less time to raising children.

As an aside, societal expectations about women performing child-rearing duties can be bad for men who otherwise would have liked to be able to spend more time with their families, being able to witness the formative stages in their child’s development and creating strong bonds with their children. Perhaps if Australians decided to value traditional feminine domains such as staying at home and caring for families more generally, it would become more acceptable for men to also want to become involved in the home in this way.

It is also true that the workforce, by and large, is not supportive of family life. Flexible arrangements are relatively rare in private enterprise and it is not part of Australian work-place culture to have the kind of balance that many women would like and which may also be embraced by many men. It is often the case that career progression comes at the huge cost of other important values, such as family life, and we need to question if this is what we want from our the workplace landscape.

There are, of course, more pragmatic policy solutions which are relatively straightforward to implement, such as those suggested by the researchers of this study including return-to-work payments, and making superannuation contributions to those who receive parental leave payments. In the workplace, employers could be encouraged to keep in contact with those who are taking parental leave as well as making longer-term arrangements with those who do take time off in order to have children. However, such measures, while easing this problem, do not address the underlying social issues of gender expectations and gendered pressure to perform certain duties as well as the failure of working life to be suitably designed in order to maximise balance and, at the end of the day, provide enjoyment in all the things life has to offer.

You can read about the research referred to in this post here.

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