I returned to Figure 1 many times as I moved through this essay, enough for the spine to soften along the crease at that point. Now I often find the text falls open naturally at that page. It would be a shame if this graph were the only thing a reader took away from Annabel Crabb’s skewering Men at Work – but, my god, this graph. Has there been a more effective visual aid in the history of the Quarterly Essay? It would be a fitting laurel for an essay that finds much of its power in seeing what others have missed, or avoided, or ignored.
The mother’s time-use survey is still striking, even now. It has a sort of gravitational pull – such a perfect distillation of the fear many young women hold close about having children. “The graph itself looks like the heart rate of a very, very stressed person,” writes Crabb. Or someone who has been struck by lightning.
I don’t have any children, although the statistics suggest I will in the next few years. By their early thirties, two-thirds of women in Australia will have at least one child. At this age, only one in five women will work full-time, contrasted with four out of five of their male peers. See Figure 1.
As I read this essay, though, I found myself looking increasingly to the corresponding graph, which traces how the father’s life adapts to having a child, how it barely shifts over the course of twelve years – resolutely impervious to change. Initially, I was racked by jealousy. Of course men will refuse to bend, to soften along the spine when something as cataclysmic as a child comes into their life. And yet, in the end, I came to see the father’s timeline as utterly dull. A twelve-year holding pattern stretching out who knows how far in either direction.
Clearly, the turbulence mothers experience isn’t preferable. But ultimately, the question I couldn’t shake was why this was the system we built. Why build a something to make ourselves miserable?
Australia’s paid parental leave scheme began in 2011, not 1970. Already there was a wealth of research to hand and international precedent for something better-constructed. There was an understanding of how interruption to women’s working lives feeds into the gender pay gap and the superannuation gap. It had been sixteen years since the influential journal Feminist Economics launched. At the same time, Australia – having weathered the global financial crisis relatively unscathed – saw its female labour participation rate for those aged twenty-five to fifty-four drop below 75 per cent. For men, the rate remained above 90 per cent.
Yet we enacted one of the least generous paid parental leave schemes in the OECD. Is this truly the best that was politically possible? So much in the carelessness of parental leave makes you wonder who was in the room when the policy was formulated.
Before reading this essay, I had never been on a “mum and bub” forum, though I promptly found myself tumbling into an internet rabbit hole. They are fascinating spaces: an entire underground economy of mothers trading advice about how to navigate Australia’s rigid parental leave system.
The lessons are myriad but, for now, just two.
First, no one should have ever let Joe Hockey walk into that interview with Laurie Oakes and use the term “double-dipping” to describe mothers who seek to access both public parental leave and a private scheme offered by their employer. Years on, these forums still seethe at the term. There are threads, hundreds of comments deep, replete with mothers venting their frustration about the political ignorance that allowed “double-dipping” to end up among a treasurer’s talking points. Mothers upbraiding this system that frames having a child as a burden to the taxpayer, rather than a public good.
The other key point is that mothers are highly organised. Not in the “everything in its place” sense, but in the tightly networked, informed, constantly communicating way that can sway public sentiment. The kind of community that political campaigns dream of tapping into.
And it does make you wonder who’s in the room – when “double-dipping” gets signed off as a talking point, when eighteen weeks at minimum wage is seen as the best option that is politically possible, when the need to reform a system that devalues female labour is ignored for nearly a decade.
Perhaps now, when – as Crabb points out – both our prime minister and our treasurer are the fathers of young children, there is an opportunity for improvement. A chance to soften the rigidity in the system. Perhaps the economic headwinds that Australia faces will render a more generous leave scheme an attractive option for stimulus by another name. One only needs to look at the positive response to Cricket Australia’s twelve-month paid parental leave scheme to see there is appetite in the community for something better.
Clearly our policy-makers need to think more inclusively, to view new parents and their child as a unit – and allow them to figure out what works best for their particular circumstances. To give families the choice to divvy up a block of leave – at least twenty weeks, though ideally more – between both parents, and to consider a “use it or lose it” minimum for each.
It would be hard for a reader to come away from this essay without the sense that parental leave shapes so many things in our society. That if policy-makers were to take the macro view – as Crabb has done so effectively – they would see how expensive and apparently intractable issues could be moved by a better approach. Workforce participation, mental health and gender equality – something we know is key to reducing gendered violence – are just the first that come to mind.
But on questions of family, perhaps more than any other subject, our search for answers too often shrinks to the personal, the anecdotal. What other parents managed to pull off, or where they failed. When I finished this essay, the first thing I did was text my dad. I asked him how much leave he took when I was born. “Hi!” came his reply, immediately. “I don’t think I took any carer’s leave. I was there when you were born though. It wasn’t really an option, as far as I know. I still think it’s low (5 per cent?). Why do you ask?”
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 76, Red Flag.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY