Programs that encourage dads to take time off benefit everyone

Brisbane couple Lindsay Klein and Lani Jennings are expecting their first child, a daughter, in December. Lindsay is an ...
Brisbane couple Lindsay Klein and Lani Jennings are expecting their first child, a daughter, in December. Lindsay is an engineer for Aurecon and is taking part in the company's "shared care" program to take three months off to look after the baby when Lani goes back to work. 

In many ways Lindsay Klein and Lani Jennings are a typical Australian couple expecting their first child in about a week's time.

Yet the couple is unusually privileged, because Klein's workplace has introduced a "shared care" program to encourage fathers to take time off to care for their babies.

Klein, 32, is an engineer for Aurecon in Brisbane, while Jennings, 34, is a learning and development psychologist for Queensland Health.

Brisbane couple Lindsay Klein and Lani Jennings were married about a year-and-a-half ago, but have been together seven years.
Brisbane couple Lindsay Klein and Lani Jennings were married about a year-and-a-half ago, but have been together seven years. 

When their daughter arrives, Klein will take his standard two week's paternity leave and Jennings will go on a more prolonged period of maternity leave. So far, so standard.

The twist in the tale is that Jennings plans to take off about 10 months then return to work, at which point Klein will take up to three months off work and be the primary caregiver. And thanks to the shared care program recently introduced at Aurecon, that time will be at full pay.

"If we didn't have this available I think my wife would've had a full year off, maybe more, and I would've just had a couple of weeks off when the baby was born," Klein says. "This way my wife gets to keep growing her career and I'll get to spend some time getting to know my daughter."

The other benefit is financial. The family will going back to two incomes earlier than planned - welcome relief since the couple recently bought a new home.

Engineering firm, Aurecon, a member of Consult Australia's sub-grouping within Male Champions of Change, is one of the first organisations in Australia to implement shared care, which entitles employees to take off up to three months at full pay to take over as primary carer as long as their partner is returning to work.

It also entitles employees who take the main period of parental leave to receive 150 per cent of salary if they return to Aurecon and their partner is taking over as primary carer but can't access paid parental leave from their own employer. And if both parents are employed by Aurecon, they can both access the company's paid parental leave.


I'd love to see this program adopted at other large Australian companies and organisations. It's important for a few reasons.

First and foremost, it benefits families if dads are involved in the care of their kids. OECD research suggests fathers who take parental leave are more likely to perform tasks such as feeding and bathing, and also stay more involved as the children grow up. Where fathers participate more in childcare and family life, children enjoy higher cognitive and emotional outcomes and physical health, and the fathers themselves report greater life satisfaction and better physical and mental health than than those who care for and interact less with their children.

Second, it's important for women's participation in the workforce, which in turn reduces the family's risk of poverty and boosts the nation's economic output. Maternity leave is important to allow women to recover from pregnancy and childbirth and babies to breast feed – but the positive employment effects are strongest when the period of leave is relatively short. Taking leave for longer than a year can damage future earnings prospects and make it more likely that people leave the labour force altogether, OECD research suggests.

The more that childcare is seen as a shared responsibility for men and women, the more that women will be able to participate fully in economic life. If the pattern is set early that both parents are responsible for child rearing, it won't automatically be the mother who works part time or requires access to flexible working hours or drops everything when their child is ill. This will allow men and women's careers and earning potential to progress equally and may help to reduce discrimination against women in the workplace.

Third, gender equality benefits the companies themselves because they're drawing from a bigger talent pool. In Aurecon's case, the company is dealing with the built environment so it needs engineers who understand what it's like to walk around a city with a pram.

Yet men only account for one in 50 people using paid parental leave in Australia, compared with two in five in some Scandinavian countries, according to OECD figures from 2016. The Australian government offers two weeks of "dad and partner pay" at the minimum wage, in addition to the 18 weeks for the main caregiver, but the scheme is considered underused.

One reason is that many men perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they'll be penalised professionally for taking the time off. This will only change through bold policies such as shared care that create a strong incentive.

Klein is certain this won't be a problem but he concedes he's mentioned it to mates working for other companies and been met with incredulity.

The other reason many men don't take time off is because the gender pay gap means they're often the higher income earner and going down to one income is hard enough even when it's the lower income earner taking the time off. Not surprisingly, the OECD research suggests fathers' use of parental leave is highest when leave is not just paid but well paid – about half or more of previous earnings – even if it's for a shorter period of time.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons is the Money editor and a regular columnist on money, work and life. Facebook: @caitlinfitzsimmons.