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Gender Equality Will Never Happen Until Dads Get Equal Paid Parental Leave

It’s time for dads to shoulder the nappy bag.

In some ways, gender equality has come a long way in the last 50 years or so.

It might seem shocking to anyone who has spent time at their local watering hole lately, but women spent much of the 20th century prohibited from drinking in the public bars of hotels. It took a spirited protest from a couple of brave women in 1965 to eventually overturn the ban.

And then there was the ‘marriage bar’, a policy that saw women in the public service automatically lose their jobs upon getting hitched until 1966. The financial system discriminated against women too. A friend’s mother recently told me how she couldn’t get a loan to buy a house before she was married even though she had a well-paying job.

Through a modern lens, these outrageously sexist policies seem like relics from a distant age.

But some trends are more resistant to change -- such as the firmly held belief that mothers should be the primary caregivers of their children.

With dual-income households the norm in Australia, the days of the '50s housewife are long gone, but we still expect women to take time out of work to have children, even when they’ve invested decades in their careers. A woman returning from maternity leave to work part-time is completely unremarkable in Australia, where 68.5 per cent of all part-time employees are women. Yet when the roles are switched, and men announce plans to take extended paternity leave or work part-time, eyebrows are raised.

This stigma against dads taking more active caregiving roles could help explain why so few fathers are taking primary extended parental leave -- about one in 20, according to a new report from the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

It doesn’t help that the government-funded paid parental leave scheme skews so shamelessly to women. Only one-quarter of eligible parents apply for the government’s Dad and Partner Pay entitlement -- probably because it is woefully inadequate at two weeks of leave paid at minimum wage.

READ MORE: More Flexibility For Parents When Taking Paid Parental Leave

Fathers who buck the trend and apply for the government’s Parental Leave Pay as the primary carer must contend with a bureaucratic nightmare, as this dad’s experience shows:

I’m not saying we should ditch maternity leave -- it’s absolutely necessary. (Most) mothers give birth to babies, which means they need time off work. Many breastfeed, which is made much easier by paid leave. But after a certain point, the biological necessity of having mum around diminishes. Women recover from childbirth, and breastfed babies are weaned or learn to drink expressed milk from a bottle.

READ MORE: Push To Provide Parents Of Stillborn Babies With Paid Parental Leave

There’s no reason why fathers can’t take time out of work to care for their kids. Last time I checked, a dad was just as capable of shovelling pureed pumpkin into his toddler’s mouth or changing nappies as a mum.

Edmund Paton Walsh is right. The current mother-centric parental leave paradigm only serves to entrench gender roles further. Couples emerge from new parenthood with freshly defined roles and skill-sets that go with them: mothers become expert on the home front while fathers stride ahead in the workforce.

It’s a status quo that persists in part thanks to the gender pay gap, a catch-22 where men remain breadwinners because they earn more than women. But women will never increase their earnings if they aren’t given the opportunity to work more.

READ MORE: Here's Why It Costs Less Than $85 To Have A Baby In Finland

If women and men took the same amount of parental leave, we’d immediately see the benefits. At the moment, women do 13.1 hours more unpaid work than men every week. We do more household chores than men and almost exclusively shoulder the mental load that comes with running a household -- what day swimming lessons are on, where dad’s work shirt is, and who likes pumpkin and who hates peas. A more equitable distribution of caregiving would free up women to invest their energy into other things, whether work, study or self-care.

We may have come a long way since the 1950s, but some ideas are more resistant to change. (Image: Getty)

Is it any wonder that women occupy fewer leadership positions and are less likely to run for politics when, obviously, we don’t have time in-between planning meals and doing the laundry? If it was easy for men to do more at home -- like, they were paid to do it -- women would have more time to go for that promotion.

The good news is that the private sector is moving on the issue where the government isn’t. Medibank, QBE, Deloitte and Telstra are among employers who have recently announced revamped gender-equal parental leave policies that do away with primary -- or secondary -- carer labels.

Since the 1960s, we’ve made dramatic progress towards gender equality in Australia, but in recent years it feels like we’ve hit a wall. Conservative social attitudes and restrictive work practices have held us back too long. A legislated shared parental leave scheme that doesn’t discriminate between mothers and fathers would help renew the momentum we need to create a more equitable and fair society.