When his partner Alice gave birth to their daughter Tully, teacher Riley Minns did what most dads tend to do – he took a few weeks off and then went back to full-time work. It didn’t take long for him to realise the old ways aren’t necessarily the best.
Six months in, Alice (also a teacher) found being at home full time too isolating and Riley felt he wasn’t getting enough time with his daughter. Now, he’s one of a new breed of dads working part time to share the parenting load – and busting a few gender stereotypes in the process.
“Alice and I both love teaching, but we wanted to have an equal role at home,” Riley says. “In hindsight, I would have taken more time off at the start.
“I think we fell into that stereotypical pattern that, because she was breastfeeding, Alice needed to be at home, which meant that I needed to be at work full time. Learning from those first six months, we worked out that having a balance for both of us would work best.”
Riley says his school has been very supportive of his request for a flexible working arrangement, but he’s aware it’s not an option many dads take up.
“I think that working in an industry that cares for children, people know the importance of parents spending time at home. When we tell people about our arrangement, it seems to makes a lot of sense to us, but it seems to be quite rare. What surprises us is that more people don’t do it, and that most workplaces aren’t as flexible as our workplaces have been.”
‘I think a really important part of the conversation is making it understood that a parent, regardless of gender, will require time out or adjusted working arrangements at different points.’
Indeed, one of the biggest impediments to more men taking parental leave is the reluctance of some workplaces to allow them to work more flexibly. A recent survey conducted by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) revealed that men are far more likely than women to be refused the chance to take more parental leave.
Simone Cusack, Head of Policy and Research at VEOHRC says that, given the likelihood they’ll be knocked back, many men don’t even request leave to take on more childcare responsibilities.
“Many men, despite having a strong desire to access flexible working arrangements, didn’t even ask the question,” Simone says. “There was a range of different reasons why someone might not feel able to ask the question, but the idea that it would have a negative impact on your job security, or that the employer would simply refuse, were right up there among the reasons that our survey respondents gave.”
Gender stereotypes around parenting persist in many workplaces. A 2014 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission found 27% of fathers had experienced discrimination at work related to their parental leave, ranging from negative attitudes to threats of dismissal. Another survey found that a third of respondents believed men would be seen as not taking their work seriously if they took time off to parent.
So, what will it take to break these stereotypes and make it easier for men to take on more of the parenting? Simone says that, while legislation can be helpful, employers need to be working to change the culture around gender roles. This includes being more proactive in providing information about different options available for parental leave and flexible work.
“I know Ernst & Young adopted a gender-neutral parental leave policy. And when they did that, they supported the rollout with information sessions for male staff, with a lot of comms and targeted messaging.
“Around Father’s Day, they shared stories of male staff taking parental leave, to normalise it in the workplace. I think a really important part of the conversation is making it normal and understood that a parent, regardless of gender, will require time out or adjusted working arrangements at different points.”
Likewise, she says Victoria Police brought on cultural change through a creative approach to rostering that allowed all roles to be performed flexibly.
“The very strong, entrenched idea within that organisation was that to be a good cop you had to be available across their rostering system, which wasn’t family friendly at all. Through the work we did there, their flexible work rates are now up at around 22% overall.”
Other organisations are now rethinking their approach to flexible work in the wake of the COVID-19 response, which showed that the old models of nine-to-five office work don’t suit a large section of the workforce. Simone notes that while schools, with their unique demands and strict timetables, are often thought of as inflexible working environments, that needn’t be the case.
In the UK, a secondary school in Manchester has encouraged part time and flexible hours for all its staff members. Staff retention rates are high and staff surveys sing the benefits of allowing teachers to fit the job they love around their home life, without detriment to their career development.
“The school changed its timetabling to a modular approach that meant all of their teachers could work flexibly. Teachers could then decide, for example, that they might do some professional development, they might leave early or do compressed hours or something else.”
‘You’ve got to look at what you are doing to support women to be in the workforce. But similarly, what are you doing to support men who are wanting to step out?’
Closer to home, the AEU is pursuing claims in negotations for the next Schools Agreement to support employees who are not currently covered by maternity leave. These include an increase in ‘partner leave’ from five to 20 days; and an increase in ‘other paid parental leave’, which covers employees who become legal parents through surrogacy or adoption or permanent care arrangements, from eight to 20 weeks. The union is continuing to work with DET to ensure it promotes available options for parental leave to help change the culture around gender roles.
“You’ve got to look at what you are doing to support women to be in the workforce,” says Simone. “But, similarly, what are you doing to support men who are wanting to step out, whether that’s longer term or for a shorter period of time? It seems so simple, and yet people seem to really struggle with that idea.”
Simone says it shouldn’t be a case of forcing mothers or fathers into or out of the home, but rather allowing them to decide what works best for their own families.
“I think what is ideal is that choice for families. And I feel that so much of the structures we have in place at the moment mean people feel forced to make certain decisions for their family based on a whole range of things, like the way that women are sort of segregated in low-paying jobs.”
Riley says he is grateful that his and Alice’s workplaces made the choice available, even if adjusting to his new work-life balance took him a bit of time.
“At the start of this year, I started at a new school where I had a dual role and started looking after Tully by myself. I almost felt as though I was starting three different jobs at the same time and that I wasn’t doing any of them very well. I really struggled. I think parenting is a lot harder than going to work, in many ways. It’s a lot more exhausting.”
Exhaustion aside, he says the benefits to stepping back from full-time work are pretty clear.
“I feel it’s allowing me to form a really positive relationship with my child from the start. She’s only going to be this age once, whereas I’ll probably work for another 40 years. I’ve got plenty of time to work, but I’ve only got one chance to experience these years with Tully.”