Earlier in the week I expressed my reservations about Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave policy. My reluctance has nothing to do with the policy itself, rather, it stems from the economic consequences of implementing it. If the objective is to increase women’s participation in the workforce there is compelling evidence that investing $5.5 billion in childcare will garner better results than a generous paid parental leave scheme will.
I stand by that but I’ve come to realise there is another issue which the coalition’s policy addresses which I hadn’t considered. And, that is the fact paid parental leave based on income replacement changes the payment from welfare to a workplace entitlement. Academic and feminist Eva Cox says the difference is subtle but significant.
“Incorporating paid parental leave with other workplace leave entitlements normalises parenting in the realm of employment,” Cox says. “Taking paid leave to have a baby reinforces the notion that it is legitimate to be an employee and a parent.”
It is a vital ideological step in shifting attitudes about what makes an ideal employee.
“Our workplace culture needs to acknowledge the fact that in the 21st century all of us are human beings with responsibilities and obligations outside of work,” she says. “Whether it’s parenting or other community responsibilities, better aligning our paid work with outside obligations is a good sign of a healthy society and would probably boost productivity.”
The idea that the ideal worker is someone shackled to their desk for 14 hours a day with no other responsibilities is unrealistic and counter-productive, Cox says.
“There is plenty of research to show that longer hours do not always make a person more productive,” Cox says. “But we still have these macho assumptions about workplaces and presenteeism, that the longer you’re at work the better worker you are. We need to move past the assumption that it’s efficient and effective to work 14 hour days.”
Building legitimate connections between paid work and family needs and responsibilities, through paid parental leave, will help change the culture.
In that regard Cox says it’s critical that the pay rate matches the individual’s salary.
“A flat payment does not make that connection clear, and may reinforce the perception that this is basically a welfare payment for the child’s well being, not a workplace entitlement,” Cox says.
Couching paid parental leave as a welfare payment is particularly dangerous in Australia, Cox says.
“Because we don’t have a contributory system here the assumption is if a payment is government funded then it’s welfare and therefore it has to be mean and nasty,” Cox says.
If the coalition’s paid parental leave policy can achieve cultural change that will better support parents’ ongoing participation in the workforce I am happy to concede it will be $5.5 billion well spent.
Do you agree that basing parental leave payments on an individual’s salary will legitimise parenting in the workplace more effectively than a flat rate?