CoverStory

It's time to unshackle those chains

When it comes to women and the workforce, Australia and the United States are trailing the rest of the West

By Melissa Grah-McIntosh

The year 2014 was not a progressive one for Australia or the United States. Notwithstanding attempts by Tony Abbott and Barack Obama to champion paid maternity leave programs, neither Canberra nor Washington advanced policies that improve equality or female participation in the workforce.

In March, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott asked: “Why should Australia be one of just two OECD countries that does not base paid parental leave on peoples’ real wage?” A few months later, President Barack Obama declared: “There is only one developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave, and that is us.And that is not the list you want to be on — on your lonesome.”

Neither nation has a mindset suited to the 21st- century workforce. With policies such as paid parental leave in legislative limbo, both Australia and the United States have missed out on huge opportunities to make real change. But efforts in both nations to engage more women in their careers are inevitable, and will increase economic growth and competitive advantage, providing more equality for women in the workforce and ultimately pave a pathway for more female leaders across business, government, and politics.

When it comes to parental leave, Australia doesn’t pay enough and the United States doesn’t pay at all. In fact, President Obama’s 21st-century workplace includes no mandatory paid parental leave and only 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. According to a US Council of Economic Advisors report in June, only 60 per cent of employees surveyed can take unpaid leave for the birth of a child. It also reported that only 39 per cent could take paid family leave of any sort.

This is in a country whose corporate mega-giants recently introduced egg-freezing for employees: an employee perk that takes the tailoring approach to controversial new levels. Not to let politics or even biology get in the way of employee engagement and company performance, Facebook started offering the expensive procedure this year and Apple will start in January 2015. This latest policy shows the extent to which the highly competitive tech industry will go to ensure it attracts and retains talented employees. Despite the uproar across media, women are taking up the offer. In Time, columnist Jessica Bennett asks: “if your boss is offering it up to you for free, what do you have to lose?”

Ultimately, the private sector is leading the way in increasing and sustaining women’s participation in the workplace. Meanwhile, government looks prehistoric. The President leads the only Western nation not to have a paid parental leave scheme at all. It’s mind-boggling that he has to deal with issues that should belong to a different century.

Faced with a recalcitrant Congress, the President recently granted $500,000 to assist states with ideas for paid maternity leave. The District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Montana, and Rhode Island will share the small pot of funding to develop studies on paid leave. In a statement the US Department of Labor said: “The studies will inform the development or implementation of paid family and medical leave programs at the state level.”

When he returned to the United States from a recent trip to Australia for a G20 meeting, US Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said: “After sitting down with my G20 counterparts and learning more about their policies relating to work and workplaces, my main takeaway is that the United States is distressingly behind the curve on paid family leave.”

Behind the curve? Yes. But as host of an upcoming G20 that set a global economic growth target of two per cent — and even though Australia is urging its fellow nations to target a reduction in the employment participation gap of 25 per cent by 2025 — Australia could also be doing more. Instead it is debating every political reason not to pass Tony Abbott’s proposal to implement a new paid parental leave policy that would provide a mother with 26 weeks of full pay, now with a reduced cap of a total of $50,000.

Rather than focusing energy on the politics of reordering budget priorities, we could be debating opportunities to be innovative and forward-looking through the development of tailored programs that encourage more women to stay in their careers: more inclusive policies that allow women to contribute equally to productivity and growth.

Start with a 21st-century mindset. An International Labour Organization report on maternity and paternity at work says: “Overall, evidence suggests that workers prefer better-paid leave for both women and men during shorter periods, followed by family- friendly working arrangements and quality, affordable childcare services responsive to the needs of both working parents and children, rather than extended leave periods with little compensation.”

According to the best practice guide put out by the Australian Government’s Fairwork Ombudsman, best practice employers have in place parental leave policies that are practical, flexible, and tailored to the specific circumstances of the business and its employees. Indeed, many women in the workforce aren’t completely switching off when they have babies. We’re blogging, we’re communicating online, and we’re starting businesses. Many of us actually want to stay engaged with our career.

According to the Australian Centre for Entrepreneurship Research, based at Queensland University of Technology, Australian women are the most entrepreneurial of the world’s developed economies, with 7.8 per cent of us involved in either setting up a new business or owning a newly founded business. The research also found Australia is the only developed economy in which men and women are participating equally in entrepreneurship.

It would take the corporate sector and government working together to come up with solutions and invest in programs that fit a 21st-century society. This is a society in which women decide to return to their careers after childbirth and use technology to connect, network, and pursue further education; where policymakers consider men equally, and do not just compensate them for supporting a mother for a week or two when she brings a baby home.

In a recent Boston College survey, of the more than 1,000 men surveyed 89 per cent of respondents indicated it was important for employers to provide paid paternity or paid parental leave. More men sharing the care of their child would allow for a much more equal playing field for women who want to advance their careers.

Analysis undertaken in 2012 by Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows that women hold only seven CEO positions and make up only 9.7 per cent of executive key management positions in ASX200 companies. We’re not doing enough to help women on maternity leave to re-boot their careers when they want to return to work so they can reach the leadership positions they aspire to. We’re not being creative enough or innovative enough for a 21st-century society.

Women’s full economic participation would make an important contribution to sustainable growth, competitive advantage, and global success. As Business Council of Australia President Catherine Livingston told the Australia–Israel Chamber of Commerce in July: “We need to choose now between a path of purposeful action or a path of painful adjustment.”

And standing right at the fork in this path is 50 per cent of the population. It is the participation of women, the policies for women and families, the equality of women in society and work, and the innovative ideas that make change happen that will help ensure the growth of Australia’s economic and competitive future. 

Although starting from behind, the United States has a great opportunity to embrace innovative work practices that allow both women and men to get the most out of their careers. Its private companies are already doing this at a fast pace. Australia, too, is on the cusp of a change that, if the right partnerships are formed and choices made, could really make a difference. Both nations should pursue a 21st-century society and workforce in which the full and equal participation of women is not negotiable.