How to convince dads to go home

Working fathers are traditionally relegated to the role of ‘secondary carer’, which means women shoulder the majority of childcare. Here, we look at how governments and major companies are turning the dial by persuading dads to take more parental leave.

Not for a moment did Joel Berry consider shirking his parental leave entitlement. The Medibank business analyst took three months’ leave in 2014 when his firstborn son was nine months old, and more recently in 2017 when his second child was 13 months old. 

“You only have a small window when you can spend this much time with your kids,” explains Joel. “If your employer has a great parental leave policy, utilise it.” 

Joel’s sentiment is becoming more and more common, particularly among millennial dads, who are increasingly vocal about their wish to be as present and engaged in parenting as their partners.

Men and women taking parental leave: an uneven split 

In Australia and the UK, studies suggest that attitudes toward gender roles are becoming more progressive, however in the majority of countries, the share of men taking parental leave is still below 5%^ and in the UK,  the percentage of men taking paternity leave has actually fallen four years in a row^^

Meanwhile, a 2017 study in the US found that two-out-of-three dads believe caregiving should be divided equally with their partners, but fewer than one-out-of-three actually do so^^^

While there are many barriers stopping dads from taking time out to be with their children, it is commonly agreed that by introducing more progressive shared policies and tackling the issue of equal pay for men and women, governments and companies can help to encourage more fathers to take parental leave. 

Gender neutral policies and a suitable approach to flexibility are only one half of the equation, however. Time and effort must be invested into creating a more supportive climate, and promoting the idea that dad as caregiver is of equal importance as mum as caregiver.

How governments have tried to increase paternity leave 

This disconnect between men’s desire to take parental leave and their participation rates has been addressed by governments in countries such as Norway, which implemented a ‘daddy quota’: a use-it-or-lose-it policy of paid paternity leave. In 1992, the year before the quota came into effect, a meagre 2.4% of dads took leave, compared to 1997 when that proportion had skyrocketed to 75%^^^^.

Likewise, Sweden, which was the first country to introduce a gender-neutral paid parental leave benefit (in 1974), has one of the most generous paid family leave policies in the world. Both parents are entitled to 240 days’ leave, with 90 of those days earmarked as a minimum for each parent, and the remaining 150 days transferable to either parent.

In the absence of successful government initiatives, there’s little wonder the corporate world is stepping up. Many organisations now realise that, from a talent recruitment and retention perspective at least, what’s good for families is good for business. 

So, what does it look like when companies actively encourage their male staff to take more than the customary one or two weeks’ parental leave?

Boost in leave uptake by Medibank dads

Leading the way in Australia is health insurer Medibank, which launched its FamilyFlex paid parental leave policy in 2018. Medibank broke the mould by scrapping the definitions of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ carer entirely, offering all eligible parents, regardless of gender, 14 weeks of paid leave in the first two years after the birth or adoption of a child. 

Prior to introducing FamilyFlex, 2.5% of those who applied for parental leave (two weeks or longer) were male. With the introduction of the policy and ongoing focus on culture change, this has increased to 33%. On average, men now take eight weeks of parental leave, whilst women take an average of 19 weeks.

“It’s early days,” says Kylie Bishop, Medibank Group Executive of People and Culture, “but we’ve already seen the positive results of this change. Culturally it’s had a really big impact on our organisation.

“For our male employees, what we’re seeing is that they are now more comfortable leaving the office ‘loudly’.

“They’re sharing school drop-off and pick-ups, or working from home if they need, and they are sharing their stories with their teams and peers. Our mantra is ‘you should be able to bring your whole self to work’, and we’re starting to see some change behaviourally in the workplace around this.”

Creating a culture of openness

The success of FamilyFlex can be attributed to a couple of factors. Firstly, the introduction in 2014 of flexible working for all employees, not just those with children or caring responsibilities. Policy stated that all people leaders must “start from a position of trust” and explore “all available options” for flexible working. This created a culture of openness to flexible work. 

After the FamilyFlex policy was introduced, 76% of Medibank employees were working flexibly in some capacity—including 100% of Medibank’s senior executives. This marked a 20% increase on previous uptake. 

The other key success factor was the approach senior Medibank executives took in establishing a policy that would genuinely hit the mark: engaging in honest, two-way conversations with employees about what was working and what wasn’t. 

“From these conversations came the realisation that the current gendered approach wasn’t working for most,” says Kylie. “With modern family structures and both parents often working, the traditional way of thinking about parental leave was not set up for this, plus it was really confusing and complicated.”

By genuinely listening to its staff and implementing the policy clearly and swiftly, the results speak for themselves. Since 2015, Medibank has increased retention of employees who returned from parental leave in the last year by a whopping 54%. New parents also say they feel more supported in integrating their home and work life, and are more likely than their peers to recommend Medibank as a good place to work.

“Plus, we’re attracting more people,” says Kylie, “because the advocacy is coming not just from our people, but from their families as well.”

Programmed dads spread the word

Another great example of a workplace actively driving toward inclusive family-friendly culture is at operations service provider Programmed. 

In 2018, Programmed adjusted its parental leave policy to make it more accessible to dads, offering 12 weeks of paid leave to the primary carer regardless of gender, to be taken within two years of the birth or placement of a child. 

“Given 69% of our overall workforce is male, it made sense to offer them the same opportunity as their partners to care for their children during the early years,” says James Sherlock, Group General Manager, People

Accounts Payable Team Leader Chetz Dodia was the first Programmed father to take the full 12 weeks’ leave in 2018 to care for his son, Rishav, at the conclusion of his wife’s parental leave period. 

Chetz used his entitlement to support his wife’s transition back into the workforce. “Like any mother, my wife worried about putting Rishav into daycare,” reflects Chetz, “however me taking leave gave her peace of mind that he was in good hands.”

CI-medlev-GX-CONS-Chetz Dodia

Following his experience, Chetz has become a keen advocate of men taking parental leave, sharing his story through video and written content on the company website and intranet, inspiring other fathers at Programmed to take on a more active role in their child’s early life. 

James acknowledges the power that this kind of role modelling can have. “The company has seen some really positive stories from dads taking parental leave, and we’re bringing this policy to life through shared storytelling.”

Showcasing parental leave loud and proud 

An ongoing study at the University of Hertfordshire into why women are more likely to shoulder the bulk of parental leave suggests that some employers have failed to normalise shared parental leave in the workplace.

The research found that, while most organisations now have policies on shared parental leave, only 18% of respondents heard about it from their employers^^^^^.

This means there is a great opportunity for organisations to better communicate the existing benefits they offer fathers wanting to take a greater stake in childcare. This can be done through storytelling, role-modelling, leadership and culture. 

When Business Development Manager Moses Khoury announced to his team he was expecting his first child, he was encouraged to take up Programmed’s parental leave entitlement by his manager. “The opportunity to spend time with my daughter in her first year of life was something I couldn’t turn down,” says Moses.

As parental leave approached, the reality of being disconnected from work began to sink in.  “I started to question how my absence from work would affect the team,” says Moses. “However, with a strong team and a supportive manager, we worked together to ensure that the workload was shared amongst the team.”

In addition to its progressive parental leave policy, Programmed is promoting flexibility and wellbeing to its people through online resources and content. It is also facilitating constructive conversations between employees and managers through training on how to have those conversations. 

“Workplace flexibility is seen as mainstream now and is critical to helping families function effectively,” says James. 

Letting families decide

More and more, trendsetting organisations the world over are announcing the implementation of bold and progressive policies and benefits to support working families. 

Gender neutral policies and a suitable approach to flexibility are only one half of the equation, however. Time and effort must be invested into creating a more supportive climate, and promoting the idea that dad as caregiver is of equal importance as mum as caregiver.

As companies like Medibank and Programmed have discovered, creating environments that actively listen to, support and promote fathers taking parental leave, means a positive impact on staff engagement and wellbeing. 

What’s James’s advice to other employers? “Look at your workforce; speak with them and understand what they need to make the policy valued and effective. If you do this, you will not only get the best outcome for the business and the workforce, but the cultural benefits of the engagement with your people will be long lasting.”


^Towards gender balanced parental leave: Australian and international trends,Workplace Gender Equality Agency.
^^Petter, O., (July 2019), Fewer than third of new fathers take paternity leave, research suggests.
^^^Harrington, B., Sabatini Fraone, J., Boston College Center for Work & Family; Lee, J., Stonehill College, The new dad: The career-caregiving conflict, Boston College 2017.
^^^^Modern daddy: Norway’s progressive policy on paternity leave, International Labour Organization.
^^^^^Gheyoh Ndzi, E., (October 2018), No wonder dads aren’t taking shared parental leave – most employers have failed to embrace it, The Conversation.

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