Australia’s policies on parental leave critically lag when it comes to length, equity and quality, according to academic research from Australian universities and think tanks.

The federal government currently offers an 18-week period of leave to primary carers, who are almost exclusively mothers. On the other hand, secondary carers, mostly consisting of fathers, are allowed two weeks of leave. Both are set at minimum wage.

Owain Emslie, a senior associate at Melbourne-based think tank the Grattan Institute, said when his first daughter, Violet, was born he hadn’t considering taking any leave other than the two weeks provided by government policy. His story is just one of many that other fathers share.

“One of the things that strikes me looking back is that it never would have occurred to me to take more parental leave,” he told Central News.

Determined to change things, Emslie took long service leave when his second daughter, Vivienne, and said he grew closer with both his daughters, while his wife was able to get promoted at her job.

While parental leave is often more than sufficient for workers in white-collar industries, Emslie said the same treatment needs to be applied across both genders in all industries.

“The danger with that flexibility is that it ends up being all the women [rather than both parents] that are using it,” he added. 

There’s an appetite to do things differently when people have different choices or are better able to make the choices they have.

Dr Elizabeth Hill, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, said her research showed having more equitable parental leave is the first step of many to a gender-balanced workplace.

“So by maintaining an attachment to the labour force, it means that they can continue their career progression, they can maintain the earning of a wage, they don’t kind of go backwards over a long period out of the workforce,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency stated more gender-neutral policies would benefit both mums and dads.

“Changing attitudes about the distribution of work at home and in the workplace is a key driver for achieving gender equality,” a spokesperson said.

The Grattan Institute’s Dad Days report, released last month, recommended increasing the pay and length of parental leave. Under their proposal, parents would be allowed six weeks of leave each, with another 12 weeks to be shared between them.

The report said creating better parental leave was the key to a policy that could create social change and generate economic benefits simultaneously. 

“There’s an appetite to do things differently when people have different choices or are better able to make the choices they have. No one’s sort of going to be holding a gun to anyone’s head saying they have to take leave… it’s there on offer, adding to that,” said Emslie.

“If parental leave is more equal, evenly shared, it kind of opens up ideas to people on how they can do the caring and the paid work split differently.”

The policy reforms outlined in the report will cost about $600 million, but greater female workforce participation and better quality of life for dads is set to generate about $900 million.

Main photo of Owain Emslie and his two daughters supplied.