It was a Friday 16 years ago when I checked into hospital for a planned Caesarian section. After six furious weeks into a new job, I still had so much to do.
The maternity leave lasted just four very quick months due to the short time that I had been in the role. I received maternity leave payment equivalent to 100 percent of my salary, plus superannuation, during that time. It would have been six months of maternity leave but I was forced to return to work part-time for the final two months, still on full pay, due to unfinished business rather than job insecurity.
So when Tony Abbott announced his six months fully paid parental leave scheme to begin in July 2015, I wasn’t at all surprised when his approval rating climbed. Maternity leave affects a woman’s financial situation in a number of ways.
- The short-term pain when a salary is lost is significant in most households across the country. The price of housing is barely affordable on two salaries. It can become virtually impossible to meet mortgage repayments or rent and also continue to maintain even the most basic of lifestyles during a period of unpaid maternity leave. I have friends who made the conscious decision to put off having children until they could afford to exist on one salary for a period of time. For a couple of them that pushed back the decision to start a family for 10 years and then they were faced with the added financial burden related to fertility issues. To be able to choose when to start a family, free of financial worries, is priceless.
- The long-term damage to a woman’s financial independence cannot be over-stated. Women already earn less than men, which means we also accumulate less superannuation during our working lives. Every time a woman takes maternity leave her superannuation suffers and that has real consequences down the line. Fully paid maternity leave that includes superannuation payments will assist in bridging the gap.
- The medium-term impact on career confidence has been largely ignored in the maternity leave discussion. The difference between my two experiences of maternity leave was about fear. The first time, on limited paid leave, I panicked and convinced myself I was out of sight and therefore out of mind for opportunities to progress my career. I was right. I was told to relax and enjoy my child but I was unable to stop worrying about my job, even though I was no longer being paid to do so. The second time round I was on full pay during my leave but was able to relax and not worry about work because I felt the organisation had demonstrated a commitment to my career through the comprehensive maternity leave payment. I returned to work as confident as the day I left. My career barely skipped a beat. Every woman should be able to feel like that.
I am not a fan of all or even many of Abbott’s policies but his parental leave scheme is an investment in women’s careers, finances and freedom of choice.