'Rewarding, scary, exciting, tiring and challenging'
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'Rewarding, scary, exciting, tiring and challenging'

Ross is a 33-year-old banker who took two months off with his infant son: “It ended up being the most rewarding, scary, exciting, tiring and challenging two months of my life.”

Andrew is a 34-year-old sustainability manager who took four months of parental leave with both of his sons: “What I would say to other men is you’ll always have work but you’ll never have that time again with your kids.”

Renn is a 38-year-old-architect who took 4.5 months of parental leave with his two children: “Once you take parental leave you’ll feel like an integral and indispensable part of your family.”

Australia is not poised to reap the rewards that come with more men taking parental leave.

Australia is not poised to reap the rewards that come with more men taking parental leave.

Photo: Jessica Shapiro

Ross, Andrew and Renn are among a small minority of Australian fathers who have taken extended periods of time off work to care for their small children.

Figures from 2017 show that just one in 20 Australian dads take "primary" parental leave. A 2014 study by the Human Rights Commission revealed that 85 per cent of fathers surveyed took less than four weeks leave when a new child arrives. Global parental leave expert Professor Linda Haas predicts only 26 per cent of eligible fathers in Australia are even aware they can take primary parental leave.

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Compare this with Sweden where dads take roughly 25 per cent of the total days of paid leave available to parents. But it’s not just the expected Nordic countries seeking to get more dads more involved in caring. The UK's conservative government is actively campaigning to boost the number of British dads who take paid leave.

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The reasons are manifold.  Paid leave for fathers has the power to contribute significantly to the redistribution of unpaid care work and transform deeply rooted inequalities between men and women. It can narrow the pay gap, allows women to participate to a greater extent in work, boost national productivity, increase profitability and improve the elusive work/life balance families can enjoy. Unsurprisingly fathers taking extended leave also enables them to better bond with their infant children.

But Australia isn’t poised to reap these rewards. Our government-provided paid parental leave scheme is one of the least generous among OECD nations with just 7.6 weeks full-time equivalent pay, compared with 39 weeks in the UK and 35 weeks in Canada.

Among non-public sector Australian organisations with more than 100 employees, only 45.9 per cent offer paid parental leave for "primary" carers averaging 10 weeks and 39.3 per cent offer an average of 7.3 days of paid leave for secondary carers.

Global evidence shows fathers access to parental leave increases when the entitlements are generous and there is flexibility about how leave is taken. To date Australian dads have been hampered on both counts but a number of corporations are seeking to change this.

Some Australian companies are introducing more flexible, generous parental leave.

Some Australian companies are introducing more flexible, generous parental leave.

Photo: supplied

In March the health insurer Medibank introduced a policy offering 14 weeks paid leave to all parents, regardless of whether they’re the primary or secondary carer. It can be taken at any time in the first two years of a child’s life and split across two periods. Employees of L’Oreal Australia are all entitled to 14 weeks of paid parental leave too.

The "business case" for paid leave isn’t necessarily well understood but it is patently clear. It is cheaper to pay an existing employee to go on leave and return, than it is to replace them which is why Bob Joss, the then chief executive of Westpac, famously introduced paid maternity leave back in 1995.  More than two decades on the commercial case prevails.

A 2016 study of more than 1,500 employers by EY in the US found that more than 80 per cent of companies that offer paid family leave reported a positive impact on employee morale, and more than 70 per cent reported an increase in employee productivity. The same study indicated that 92 per cent of companies with a paid family leave policy reported that it had a positive effect or no effect on profitability.

And this says nothing of the life-changing experiences dads like Renn and Andrew and Ross have had by taking time off work to care for their kids.

On Thursday a group of organisations including Deloitte, Westpac, Spotify, the WGEA, the Embassy of Sweden and Parents at Work will convene at the Sydney Opera House to start a national public discussion about how organisations can support dads to share the care. The upside is endless.

Georgina Dent is the contributing editor of Women's Agenda and an advocate for gender equality.

The ‘Aussie Dads’ photographic exhibition featuring the iconic ‘Swedish Dads’ images by Johan Bävman will debut at the Sydney Opera House on August 23 and run until the August 31.