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Gender and COVID-19: the impact of the pandemic on working fathers – an opportunity to encourage a more equal workplace culture? (Asia region)

  • Market Insight 16 July 2021 16 July 2021
  • Asia Pacific

In this article, we consider the impact of COVID-19 on working fathers and what this could mean for the future of the workplace. As we set out below, there is a real opportunity now to embrace change and improve diversity and workplace culture.  

COVID-19 has seen some working parents swap the morning commute for breakfast with the family and a blurring of lines between work and family life while working from home. Many men have seen their childcare and domestic responsibilities increase and some may have experienced, for the first time, the challenges of juggling work and childcare. In October 2020 we reported on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women (COVID-19: how employers can manage the disproportionate impact on women) including that women are more likely to have been working while looking after children, lost their jobs and seen a decrease in earnings. However, working fathers have also been affected.

The modern workforce and the changing expectations of working fathers 

Modern fathers are more involved in day to day parenting than ever before and have an expectation of a better balance between work and home life. Even before the pandemic, there was a general increase in flexible working arrangements. In particular, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) found that between August 2015 – August 2019, there was an increase in the number of employed people who had an agreement to work flexible hours and who regulatory worked from home. However, men have unfortunately not always been supported in their endeavours to work flexibly. Bain & Co reported in 2016 that 60% of Australian men wanted flexible working hours but were twice as likely as women to have their requests rejected.

It seems likely that as more people return to the workplace, employers will see more flexible working requests from men as they increasingly look for more family-oriented policies, flexible working patterns and more favourable paternity policies. Interestingly, Australia does not have a legislated concept of Shared Parental Leave (SPL), despite this concept existing overseas, such as in the UK. Rather, to access Australia’s national Parental Leave Pay, a person must be the primary carer of a newborn and (with a few exceptions) be the birth mother of the newborn child. In contrast, SPL provides a shared pool of leave which may be divvied between the parents of a newborn child, regardless of the gender of the parents.

As employers consider the future of the workplace as restrictions ease, this is an opportunity to assess how they might encourage a more equal workplace culture by supporting working fathers who want to continue sharing in this increased level of childcare responsibilities. Unfortunately, a stigma continues to exist. A 2018 collaboration between the Diversity Council of Australia and Suncorp revealed that a higher proportion of male carers (25%) reported having experienced discrimination in the workplace against a male non-carers (14%). Male carers also reported feeling that, because of their status as a carer, they could not progress in their career.

We all know by now why diversity and inclusion is a good thing: morally, reputationally, and from a strong business case backed up by research - that good diversity, including a gender-diverse workforce, enhances profits, productivity and innovation. Employers that fail to offer good work/life balance for parents risk losing top talent to competitors.

In addition, employers that encourage and support flexible working for fathers may also impact wider issues of gender equality. The potential effect of more fathers working flexibly, sharing childcare responsibilities and taking leave is likely to have a positive impact on gender equality in the workplace through less stigma and disadvantage felt mainly by women who take time out for family caring and in turn helping to reduce the gender pay gap.

Encouraging an equal workplace culture

There are a number of steps employers can consider taking to encourage a more equal and inclusive workplace culture which includes support for working fathers. In this area, we can draw positive examples from international experiences by countries which have introduced formal schemes:

Providing financial incentives

The impact of financial support on SPL uptake can be seen from the experience of Scandinavian countries which appear to be ahead of the curve on fathers taking parental leave and gender equality. In Sweden for example, where close to 90% of fathers take parental leave, both parents are entitled to 240 of the 480 days’ paid parental leave and 90 days’ leave is reserved exclusively for each of them - so there is a significant period of non-transferable paid parental leave for fathers.

In Canada, parents can share 50 weeks’ paid parental leave. The province of Quebec sought to improve gender equality and, modelling the Scandinavian system, introduced five weeks’ paid paternity leave which was not transferable to the mother. The effect was that take-up rates among eligible fathers jumped by 250%, with over 80% of Quebec fathers taking paternity leave.

Having clear and visible policies on SPL and flexible working

Do your employees know what their parental leave rights are, and whether they can request flexible working arrangements?  

In Australia, flexible working rules and leave schemes are not all contained in the same place, and all entitlements are not contained in the FWA, such as the national Parental Leave Pay referenced above.  Given the complexity of the framework, employers need to ensure that HR, managers and employees understand how the flexible working rules and leave schemes work and what the pay and leave entitlements are. A lack of transparency around the existence of parental leave and flexible working arrangements is likely to hinder uptake. Employees should be referred to the parental leave and flexible working policies at an early stage, such as during interview or induction and these policies should be easy to access on the business' intranet.

Supporting the careers and wellbeing of working fathers

If senior leadership supports and models fathers taking parental leave and working flexibly, this will make it feel more 'normal' and acceptable for men across the business to do the same.  Employers who wish to boost working father well-being could share and promote examples of senior managers who have taken parental leave or who work flexibly, in conjunction with a mentor scheme to encourage and support working fathers.

While HR and managers are used to supporting maternity returners, they need to ensure that the same support is in place for returning fathers. Encouraging working fathers to take time off and offering career support on their return will give fathers the confidence that they will be supported and that this will not be detrimental to their career.

It is also important to remember that lack of sleep, increased responsibilities, additional financial pressure, a change in marital relationships as a result of a new baby affect new fathers as well as new mothers and can have an impact on their work. It is also easy to conceive that working fathers who have to leave on time to pick up their children could be afforded less support or understanding from colleagues than working mothers. If in practice it is more difficult for fathers to get the support they need to accommodate caring commitments, this could also discourage men from working flexibly.

How we can help your organisation

COVID-19 has accelerated changes in the workplace which would not have been foreseen in early 2020. Diversity and equality issues, including flexibility, well-being and workplace behaviour have been thrown into the spotlight and employers need to adapt to this.

Do your flexible working, family friendly and diversity policies and surrounding documentation need modernising so that they become “living documents”? At Clyde & Co, we can advise on how to adapt your policies and how best to bring them to everyone’s attention.

We can also carry out a workplace culture audit to help you identify whether there are any workplace culture and equality issues in the business and if so, how to champion positive change to improve culture, gender equality and other diversity issues. 

For more information contact Kiri Jervis or your usual contact.


Additional authors:

Miriam Asar, Associate

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