Published this week in a special edition Essays on Equality: The politics of childcare, from the Global Institute of Women’s Leadership, is Lessons from Australia: how family-friendly policies support gender equality from founder and CEO of Family Friendly Workplaces and Parents At Work Emma Walsh. Chaired by Hon Julia Gillard AC, the publication features a collection of essays showcasing best-practice examples from around the world and highlighting the diverse experiences of parenthood.
‘It was a privilege to contribute to the collection along other researchers, policymakers, activists & political leaders from around the world. Post Covid, we can’t ignore the lessons learnt – we have a once in a generation opportunity to rethink and reset how we think about work and care. The future of work must be more family-friendly and inclusive of caring – it’s good for families, business and the community.’ ~ Emma Walsh, Founder & CEO Family Friendly Workplaces & Parents At Work
Forward address by the Hon Julia Gillard AC
Childcare provision is a universal issue, and we must take a global perspective to fix it. This collection (of essays) showcases best-practice examples from around the world, highlighting diverse experiences of parenthood. The aftermath of the pandemic and soaring cost of living have brought the childcare debate into the spotlight – there is an opportunity to harness this attention and bring about the change that is so urgently needed, to the benefit of children, parents and especially mothers. Care is infrastructure, and it is time it was valued as such. ~ Hon Julia Gillard AC
Lessons from Australia: how family-friendly policies support gender equality
Internationally, the Covid-19 pandemic saw a collision of work and care that dramatically exposed the conflict families have long battled, which suddenly became starkly visible to their employers.
Through lockdowns, school closures, and disruptions to childcare and other formal care settings, the business case to engage in the “who cares” conversation shot into focus. Without the usual care settings available to families, how could employers expect much – if anything – from their people stretched beyond capacity performing vital caring responsibilities?
But these work life pressures have always been there. It’s just that such caring responsibilities have been mostly invisible to workplaces, and largely managed by women.
The ongoing shift to mainstream hybrid working continues to blur the boundaries between work and home life. The popular rise of flexible working is forcing a rethink for businesses on the important role they play in addressing the challenges facing working parents. Many see the writing on the wall: respond with policies that address work life conflict, or risk failing to attract the talent they need.
The rise of the family-friendly agenda
Australia ranks equal first in the world for women’s education attainment, but 70th for economic participation and opportunity, according to the World Economic Forum. Minimal paid parental leave, a lack of accessible and affordable childcare, the gender pay gap and inflexible work practices, have all played a part in creating this imbalance.
But since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve seen dramatic shifts in some workplaces willing to invest in adopting more “family-friendly” policies which, hopefully, will have a real impact on accelerating workforce participation progress, as well as improving wellbeing outcomes for employees and their families.
In May 2022, the newly elected Labor government committed a $5.4 billion dollar investment to help parents and carers with childcare costs from mid-2023. Also prioritised was an extension to the government-funded paid parental leave scheme to move from 18 weeks to 26 weeks by 2026. Critically, adding greater ability for more families to access the scheme and more flexibility incentives for fathers to participate in sharing the leave.
Importantly, there is a growing understanding that employers are critical in this system of paid parental leave. By offering their own policies to support families, employers complement the government-funded system and there’s a co-contribution effect. This matters, because it sends a clear signal from organisations to their employees that sharing the caring load is something they recognise, prioritise and understand that we need to work together to address.
For too long, caring responsibilities have long been seen as the individual’s burden to sort out around their work which has priority.
The renewed investment from government comes as employers have been steadfastly moving ahead on creating more “family-friendly” environments – particularly through providing gender neutral paid parental leave, flexible work and other provisions.
Some of the country’s largest employers now offer up to six months of paid parental leave to all new parents, regardless of whether they are mothers or fathers, adopting parents, or bringing a new child into their lives through surrogacy. Encouragingly, there’s a trend towards removing “primary” and “secondary” carer labels from paid parental leave policies. Some employers also go further, offering miscarriage leave for those experiencing pregnancy loss and fertility leave for those undergoing fertility treatment.
These employers have been moving well beyond what’s been offered via the government-funded scheme due to the inadequacies of the system. While many point to it being morally the “right thing to do”, they don’t shy away from there being a clear economic business case to do so.
There is strong evidence that family-friendly workplace practices enhance talent attraction and retention and reduce employee turnover, with associated reduced costs to the organisation. Paid parental leave is only one piece to being family-friendly, also key is real flexibility, and other forms of leave to support care (like elder care).
The way forward
We need to support parents and carers through every career and life stage, making sure that policies support both to manage caring responsibilities.
In Australia, the Family-friendly Workplaces initiative has set National Work + Family Standards that help employers change the status quo in the workplace via a certification and action plan. The Standards directly address the barriers women, men and gender-diverse people face balancing work and family life, and particularly women in progressing their career, and men in being able to embrace caring responsibilities.
So far more than 80 employers have been certified, meaning more than a quarter of a million workers are covered and have access to flexible work practices, paid parental leave and other policies that support themselves, and their families.
These standards provide a clear benchmark for employers to follow, so we can get more employees across the country working for organisations that intentionally aim to reduce work and family conflict while also acknowledging that care is not the responsibility of women alone.
Workplaces must accept that the future of work needs to be more family-friendly if we truly want to achieve gender equality at work and at home.
Written by Emma Walsh, founder and CEO, Family Friendly Workplaces & Parents At Work