From “mothers having babies” to “people raising families”: Policy and cultural change at Baker McKenzie for inclusive parenting leave

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There are many reasons to support fathers taking leave at the birth of a child, including indications that taking time off to be with a newborn results in increased parental engagement across childhood – an area that continues to have a strong gender imbalance in Australia – and supporting a host of other positive outcomes, including maternal wellbeing and narrowing the gender pay gap.

Yet few fathers are encouraged to or, in many cases, are unable to take parental leave at the time of birth, and often unsupportive policy creates the first barrier. In today’s analysis, Kirsty White of law firm Baker McKenzie’s Diversity and Inclusion team shares how the organisation has made history by being the first law firm in Australia to provide gender-equal parental leave, and describes some of the challenges and benefits.


Evolving thinking on parental leave

Corporate Australia has come a long way in relation to parental leave in the last couple of years, with more and more organisations seeing the vast benefits of creating and promoting gender equal parental leave policies.  But what are they, and why are they so important? While each organisation will have their own story, here is a bit about Baker McKenzie Australia’s journey towards a more accessible, progressive and gender equal policy.

In mid-2017, Baker McKenzie had a “solid” parental leave policy, offering 14 weeks paid leave to primary carers at the time of the birth of a child, to be used within 12 months. This benefit was always technically available equally to both men and women.  However, the words “at the time of the birth of the child” had the unintended effect of indirectly excluding men and non-birth parents from being able to access it.  Giving birth has a significant physical impact on a woman, often for some time afterwards.  We do not normally see (nor would we want to encourage) women giving birth and then returning to work a short time later in order for the father/co-parent to access their paid leave entitlement.  Data backed up our hunch that this indirect and unintentional exclusion was happening – 100% of our people accessing primary carer parental leave were women.    

So we changed it!  This was a simple change, to allow the leave to be taken within the first 12 months.  Pretty standard (at the time), and in line with the Government PPL.  At the same time, we made a further change to allow the leave to be taken flexibly.  In other words, it did not have to taken in one 14-week block, but employees could choose to take a number of weeks of paid leave in a block, and then return on a part-time/graduated basis until the leave ran out.  Again, this was a change that was designed to encourage our men to take the paid leave at any time within that first year, in a way that best suited them and their family.

But still, we knew this was not enough, so over the next 18 months or so the firm introduced more changes.  By July 2018 we also paid superannuation during paid parental leave and increased the number of paid weeks leave to 18.

Although we were really pleased to see a number of men start to take primary carer leave, the changes were not as significant as we had hoped.  Our employees who became dads were still almost always only taking a few weeks of leave at the time of the birth, before returning to work in the same manner and schedule that they had previously.  Our women were still almost always the primary caregivers, who after a period of time (usually one year or more) would return to work. Often they would return less than full-time, for significant periods of time, with many choosing never to return to full-time work, so they could better manage their caring responsibilities. 

But what about the dads?  And why does it matter? 

What about the dads? Research shows there are multiple and long-term benefits to fathers’ involvement with childcare right from the start, but restrictive policy often keeps men from taking parenting leave.  Photo credit: Unsplash .

What about the dads? Research shows there are multiple and long-term benefits to fathers’ involvement with childcare right from the start, but restrictive policy often keeps men from taking parenting leave. Photo credit: Unsplash.

I had personal reasons for really wanting to drive change in this area.  When I had my son (while at a different employer), the parental leave policy available to me was not very generous, and very restrictive.  Even more challenging, my husband was only able to take a very short amount of time off work to be with me and our new baby before he had to return to work, continuing with long hours.  With no family nearby, I found this extremely difficult, and have no doubt in my mind that it would have been hugely beneficial to all three of us if we had been able to have more time as a new family together before he had to go back to work.  Research has shown that being able to spend more time together at the time of a birth can improve mental health outcomes for both parents, improve breastfeeding rates, and generally increase the happiness and wellbeing of all involved. 

Personal experience and opinions aside, more equal sharing of unpaid parenting and caring responsibilities has been identified as the real game changer for gender equality. The OECD has in fact described it as “the missing link” when it comes to understanding gender gaps. Our firm is committed to achieving gender equality globally, so what more could we be doing locally to make a significant difference? Australian organisations such as Medibank had already introduced gender equal parental leave to its people.  The “solid” policies from only a couple of years ago were fast becoming outdated and archaic.  With great examples being set within corporate Australia, and with the support of the Parents at Work organisation, we essentially “blew up” our old policy and introduced a truly gender equal parental leave offering to our people.

At Baker McKenzie this meant two significant differences: doing away with the traditional concept of “primary” and “secondary” carers, and allowing the leave to be taken within two years instead of one.  Our firm does not assume which parent ‘should be’ at home with your new child, or with any other children.  When one of our people has a baby, they have 18 weeks paid leave to spend time with them, in a way that works best for them.  A family may choose to have 18 weeks together at home at the time of the birth. One of our new dads might have six weeks at home, return to work for a year, and then take the remaining 12 weeks when his partner returns to work.  We encourage our people to let us know what arrangement would work for them, as there is no way we can possibly think of every family scenario.

So what is the impact?

For me, the biggest impact is simply that our men and co-parents can actually make full use of the benefit we offer.  No longer will a male employee have to forego paid leave because his partner is not working and therefore he could not be considered “primary carer”.  No longer will any parent have to decide if they return to work after 34 weeks, simply so their partner can access their 18 weeks paid leave within the first year. Our dads are also using their leave flexibly to help them share childcare responsibilities once both parents have returned to work.  This is so important, as it also de-genders flexible working which for so long has been the sole domain of the working mum. 

Below are some quotes from some of our men who have taken time off to care for their children:

 

Prior to my leave there were definitely initial thoughts of: who will do my job whilst I am off work? What will this do for my career progression? What will other employees think? But I felt so supported by the firm.  My wife returned to work which assisted our family financially and I was able to build a very special bond and have so much fun with my son, Mason. A bonus was my leave fell over summer so we spent lots of days in the pool.  Parental leave will be something I look back on as one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.” (Mitch, People team, Baker McKenzie, Sydney)

 

For me, taking a period of extended parental leave was an excellent way to establish a pattern of sharing responsibility for the care of our child from the get-go.  For those who may be concerned that taking this time may have a negative impact on your career prospects, bear in mind that this time is not significant when viewed in the context of a long career. Having returned to work around 6 months ago, I can safely say that the enduring memories from this period are overwhelmingly positive, and that any concerns I had about taking parental leave turned out to be unfounded.” (Lawrence Mendes, Partner, Baker McKenzie, Sydney)

What comes next?

It is still early days but the numbers are increasing year on year and we hope this will continue.  As an organisation, the onus is now on us to ensure we create a culture where our men feel they can take this leave.  We want to eliminate any eye rolls as we move away from the business of “women having babies” to “people raising families”.  We also continue to work hard to ensure that our people on parental leave feel supported during and after their leave.  Successful “onboarding” after a period of parental leave takes time and effort, and we need to ensure that our people and our partners and managers, have the skills to do this well.

 This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.