Workplace Equality Means Letting Dads Step Back

Guest Blog by Rohan Williams

I’m very lucky to be in a position where I am a stay-at-home dad. Being the primary carer means my wife can continue to work full-time. But my experience across the last two years has shown me that we’ve still got some work to do to make it easier for men to stay at home.

“Why, after all these decades of campaign, reform, research and thought about how we can best get women into the workplace, are we so slow to pick up that the most important next step is how to get men out of it?”
Annabel Crabb, The Wife Drought

Before our daughter was born, my wife and I were both working full-time, like two-thirds of all Australian couples. This is almost a necessity in Sydney, where the average dwelling costs 9.3 times the median household income, a ratio that’s almost doubled in the last 20 years.

When our daughter was born, my wife took 8 months off. Through her job, she had access to 18 weeks’ maternity leave at her full salary. My employer offered no such scheme for dads, so I wasn’t entitled to any paid leave beyond the national two weeks’ Dad and Partner Pay at minimum wage. I took this and two extra weeks of annual leave, starting from the due date.

As it happened, our daughter (much like her parents) stubbornly refused to do what she was told and arrived 11 days late. That meant almost two weeks of my available four were gone before she was even here. 17 days after my daughter was born, I returned to full-time work in a sleep-deprived daze.

Perhaps unlike most couples, we both enjoyed our jobs and found some purpose and meaning in work. But the arrival of a tiny human forced us to consider how we’d juggle it all. My wife earned a non-trivial amount more than me. Economically, if it had to be one of us, it made sense for her to keep working long-term. She also wanted to keep working. So did I. Just like parenting more broadly, our plan was to keep going and figure it out as we went along.

I felt so guilty leaving every morning. It seemed like we were just starting to get a handle on things, and now I’d left it all to my exhausted wife. It also became clear that I no longer had the mental bandwidth to excel in my full-time role. And if I was being brutally honest, I no longer had the motivation. Then some close family members got very sick. In short, something had to give.

I started exploring flexible work options. Four months later, I transitioned from full-time work into a casual role where I could work from home. This gave us a wonderful overlap period where we were both at home. After 8 months, my wife returned to work part-time. By the end of a year, she was working full-time again.

I remember the first day my wife went back to work. I was terrified.

But more on my story later.

Parenting today

Having a kid forces couples to confront some new realities and make some big decisions. Who is going to stay home? For how long? How do we decide? Should we put them in daycare? When? How often? How are we going to pay for all this?

Another implied set of questions is, Whose career is more important? Who is going to sacrifice? Who gets to decide? Can we both have it all?

About a year ago, I found the answer when I came across the below graph of data from Denmark.

The left-hand image compares the earnings of women who have children with women who don’t. The right-hand image does the same for men.

Holy crap, right?

When a couple has children, it takes a woman six years just to get back to the same earnings she had before having children. A man just…kind of carries on as if nothing happened.

A large chunk of the gender pay gap is explained by unequal caregiving over the course of a lifetime. Economists have suggested raising children accounts for a 17% loss in lifetime wages for women. After having a child, women are far more likely than men to choose casual, part-time, or flexible work, or shift fields to lower-paid occupations that are more ‘parent-friendly’, while men’s careers continue largely unaffected. This also adds up to massive differences in superannuation levels when it comes to retirement.

It takes a village to raise a child, so the proverb goes. But in modern life, most of the village is at work themselves. Grandparents, especially grandmothers, still play an important role in early childcare, but two-thirds of Australians aged 55–64 are still working, a percentage that’s almost doubled in the last 20 years. Many migrant families have no relatives in the country at all.

Still, someone has to look after the children.

When most households are dual-income by necessity, most grandparents are working, and full-time daycare is costly, it’s no surprise that flexible working arrangements are appealing. Sacrificing future income is a necessary price to pay to make juggling everything actually possible.

Often this need arises in one’s late 20s or early 30s. This is typically a career inflection point when smart, hard-working employees start developing into senior team members and leaders, and opportunities for growth abound. Committing to the daycare drop-off and pick-up or getting up in the middle of the night doesn’t jive well with overseas business travel, global meetings outside of normal hours, or being on call in evenings and on weekends.

This ‘parenting penalty’ is one of the reasons that women make up only 17.1% of CEOs in Australia. Having someone else at home looking after the kids obviously makes it easier to focus on the demanding and all-consuming task of leading an organisation.

This definitely seems the case for men. In a 2014 Australian study involving 30 male and 30 female CEOs, all but two of the male CEOs had stay-at-home wives who were primary carers of children. Only two-thirds of the female CEOs had children. All of them self-identified as primary carer. Only two had stay-at-home husbands, both of whom were self-employed. It’s why we constantly ask female CEOs, “How do you manage it all?” But we never seem to ask male CEOs.

And as Annabel Crabb writes, “Not asking is actually, in itself, a powerful message.” It reinforces that society doesn’t expect male CEOs to be responsible for caring or worrying about that stuff. “We have the term ‘working mum’ for a mother who works, as if that’s special enough to be surprising. But ‘working dad’ isn’t a thing people say.”

Short of having the child ourselves, which sadly remains the realm of science fiction and underrated 1990s Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, men can help by putting our hands up to share this ‘parenting penalty’.

But there are still some ways the system is working against us, and there are barriers we still need to overcome.

National Paid Parental Leave

The first of these is improving our paid parental leave policy.

Australia was one of the last OECD countries to introduce paid parental leave (2011), and its entitlements are still among the least generous.

Because of the way the system was set up, paid parental leave in Australia was almost exclusively accessed by mothers. The graph below shows how that generally compared to some other countries in 2013.

So Australia introduced Dad and Partner Pay, two weeks of paid leave at minimum wage for the secondary carer. But a review after six months found that only 36% of eligible fathers used Dad and Partner Pay, and this was most common among fathers who worked casually or as contractors. Overall, it did not lead to an increase in the percentage of Australian fathers who took leave in the first six months after a child was born.

According to the ABS, 95% of all primary parental leave is taken by mothers. While it’s technically not just for mothers, primary carer dads are an afterthought. In some cases, the system penalises working women but not working men.

To be eligible for the primary parental leave, you must be either:

the birth mother of a newborn child
the adoptive parent of a child
another person caring for a child under exceptional circumstances.
On top of this, you must have earned $150,000 or less in the last financial year. But that only applies to the primary carer, which leads to some unusual and downright unfair situations.

Let’s take the below two couples.


The man earns $160,000, and the woman earns $90,000. Total household income = $250,000.


The woman earns $160,000, and the man earns $90,000. Total household income = $250,000.

Only Couple 1 is eligible for paid parental leave, regardless of who is actually the primary carer.

Couple 2 is penalised because the woman, the birth mother, earns too much. The same household is not penalised if the incomes are reversed.

To simply survive, a household with a child often must make the best economic choice to maximise income. In this case, the family where the man earns more is entitled to an extra 18 weeks’ pay at minimum wage.

While there is provision for the birth mother to transfer some or all paid parental leave to the father, both parents have to meet the income test. So if the woman in Couple 2 wanted to return to work after one month, the man is not eligible for any paid parental leave.

Let’s look at another couple.


The woman earns $40,000, and the man earns $500,000. Total household income = $540,000.

This couple is also eligible for paid parental leave, at taxpayers’ expense, despite earning more than twice as much as ineligible Couple 2.

One last example.


The woman earns $155,000, and the man earns $10,000. Total household income = $165,000.

Not eligible for paid parental leave.

You get the point.

The legislated aims of our paid parental leave scheme are to promote equality between men and women, promote balance between work and family life, and to signal that taking time out of work to care for a child is normal for both parents.

So how can we improve the system so it actually achieves its aims?

Well, one very easy solution to improve fairness would be to means test based on household income rather than individual income. Means testing for the Child Care Subsidy is already calculated this way.

Another option would be to expand the total number of weeks and make a chunk of that use-it-or-lose-it, exclusively for ‘secondary carers’. Such a policy exists in Norway, and resulted in a massive increase in dads taking paternity leave, from 3% in 1993 to 90% today.

For a bigger overhaul, we can look to other countries. Most OECD countries now offer gender-neutral parental leave policies, and many offer a percentage of income replacement, rather than paying at minimum wage. More fathers take leave when doing so penalises the household less, and when they have flexibility about how and when to take it.

Obviously, a change like this would be expensive, but the benefits are considerable for men, women and children. When men take parental leave, mothers experience less stress, greater relationship satisfaction, greater well-being, and spend more time on paid employment. Research from Sweden shows that for every month dads took paternity leave, mothers’ incomes were 6.7% higher four years later. Men who take paternity leave are more likely to participate in ongoing childcare and unpaid household work, experience greater well-being themselves, smoke and drink less, and report greater levels of family commitment.

Children benefit from improved early health through improved maternal health, increased involvement from dads over their lifetime, and improved school performance. Daughters with working mothers are more likely to work themselves and earn higher lifetime wages (#girldad).

The private sector is quickly cottoning on to the value of providing generous shared parental leave and flexible working arrangements. This is a genuine competitive advantage in attracting talent, and organisations have an important role to play in normalising flexible work and parental leave behaviour in men. But still less than half of employers in Australia offer any additional paid leave, with that rate barely above 20% in some industries, such as retail. As Emma Walsh, CEO of Parents at Work, has said in the past, “Leaving it to the private sector has the effect of improving things only for a certain group.”

Enshrining shared parental leave in policy normalises the idea that parenting is shared. It sends the signal that the role of fathers is valued.

As a society, we’ve still got a way to come in this respect.

Incompetence, stigma and exclusion

As I said earlier, the first day my wife went back to work, I was terrified.

I was suddenly project managing Project Baby, and I was pretty sure I was grossly unqualified.

I did it all. Running out of nappies, public poo explosions, shirts on back-to-front (mine and hers), packing three hats and no shoes, leaving-a-shop-only-to-realise-your-toddler-has-shoplifted-a-bouncy-ball, you name it.

The thing is, over time, I got better.

Running a marathon is hard. If you train for it every day, your body adapts. But if you try to run a marathon without training, it’s very hard.

It’s a popular comedy trope to depict the hapless dad who’s never changed a nappy, or doesn’t know how old his kid is. Popular culture regularly reminds dads that when it comes to parenting, they are usually bumbling idiots.

And there is an element of truth to it, because Project Baby has many complex moving parts. If you’re not involved in the routine from the get-go, if you don’t get a chance to practice, it’s easy to screw it up.

Encouraging dads to take paternity leave early on gives dads a chance to be primary carer, even for a day, and earn the trust that they won’t screw it up. Secondly, it proves to the dads themselves that yes, it’s hard, but also yes, you can do it.

As one dad wrote, “I think my wife finds me a great deal more reliable now than before, and I feel much more useful. And it’s fun. Sharing moments with your child, being present, truly bonding over the fleeting daily minutiae, has undoubtedly made me a better person.

“Could it also be because the world of ‘home’ has as many intricate secret handshakes and baffling key performance indicators today as the world of ‘work’ had when women first started turning up? Could the one man showing up for school reading or canteen duty possibly feel just as exposed and uncomfortable as the one woman showing up to the board meeting might?”Annabel Crabb, The Wife Drought
But being a stay-at-home parent can also be isolating and thankless. Much excellent work has been done to raise awareness about postnatal mental health issues and provide group and community support. We have mothers’ groups, mums and bubs swimming classes, mums and bubs movie sessions, and Facebook groups like Kmart Mums Australia, where nearly 400,000 mums share tips and hacks involving products from Kmart.

I only know about that last one because my wife is a member. Being a dad, I’m not allowed to join.

Sometimes by design, but usually just by implicit social rules, dads are not really part of the club in many of these spaces. If I go to the park on a Tuesday at 11am, it’s typically me and 17 mums. They often know each other, have arranged to meet in advance, or are just bonding in the moment about shared parenting experiences. I’m not really one of them, and I’m not really welcome to join in.

It’s like being the one dude who rocks up to the Body Attack class at the gym:

“Is he there to mock us? Is he there to perv on us? Damn it, I just wanted to feel comfortable and non-self-conscious and now this class is ruined for me.”
When I’ve walked into the parents’ rooms at my local Westfield to change my daughter, I’ve stumbled onto mothers breastfeeding or changing their own children, and my presence has made them visibly uncomfortable. The thought of intruding is mortifying, and on occasion I’ve walked straight back out to avoid the situation entirely. Though sometimes in the parents’ rooms I’ve caught a glimpse of a dishevelled, wild-eyed man in the mirror. There’s momentary panic when I realise the man is holding my daughter. Then relief when I realise the man is me. So maybe it’s got nothing to do with me being a dad and more to do with justified alarm at the sudden arrival of a skittish unkempt human. We’ll never know.

When we go to appointments, doctors and educators will routinely address all communication to my wife, even when I’ve asked the question, or when she doesn’t know the answer and has to confer with me, hello, over here, the primary carer. When we ended up at Tresillian to help solve our daughter’s sleep issues, it was like I wasn’t even there. When I was addressed, it was usually dismissive, a gentle, “Be there for your wife, this is hard for her.”

When I’m out with my daughter, I still get comments like, “Oh, babysitting today?” Or, “Mum’s let you out with the baby?” The general vibe from some onlookers is a kind of knowing condescension, peering over my shoulder, gently whispering, “Don’t fuck it up!” Or perhaps they’re simply surprised that I have so readily and obviously accepted my two-year-old as my supreme overlord.

It’s OK. These people are not malicious and they’re not doing it on purpose. I’m not looking for sympathy or claiming outrage at being discriminated against, poor straight white man that I am. It’s simply my experience and observation that society still has some unconscious biases around parenting, and they can inadvertently exclude men.

If nothing else, this is a valuable lesson for men, to experience and understand what some women and minorities often encounter in the workplace, and to be mindful of how we can all be more inclusive and considerate of everyone.

There is one other area where we still do have a long way to go though.

Men as caregivers

“If we’re going to get to real equality between men and women, we have to focus less on women and more on elevating the value of care and expanding the choices and roles for men.”Anne-Marie Slaughter
In Australia, only 3% of early childcare workers are men. Public debate around whether this is even a problem has focused on concerns about ‘risk’, ‘appropriateness’ and ‘necessity’. The recurring theme around male early childhood workers is suspicion.

In modern society, where we increasingly care about gender equality, 3% is an awfully tiny number. Compare this to the level of public support, policy and funding to increase female representation in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), where in Australia, women make up 27% of those workforces.

Addressing this women in STEM under-representation is important and long overdue, and we should all care about removing barriers to entry for under-represented groups in society.

But why don’t we seem to care nearly as much about a disparity in early childcare that’s 9 times greater?

In an article for Scientific American, psychology professor Scott Barry Kaufman asks exactly this question: why don’t people care that more men don’t choose caregiving professions?

A recent study suggests a large reason we don’t care as much is because we think men are under-represented in fields because of lack of interest or ability, but women are under-represented in fields because of discrimination and stereotyping. In one experiment, participants were willing to give $9 million more in hypothetical funding to reduce female under-representation than to reduce male under-representation.

But in the case of men in early childcare, it certainly seems like it’s not only internal factors such as lack of interest or ability. Stories abound of discrimination and unfounded suspicion. Here’s one account from an anonymous female childcare educator:

“Almost all childcare educators I know or have worked with in the past refuse to even interview men for positions… If a position becomes available, whoever is responsible for recruiting asks the parents’ permission before interviewing a male. It doesn’t matter how qualified they are, how experienced, they are not getting equal treatment. There is so much prejudice, and it runs very deep.”

“It’s thought of as strange if a man wants to work with children. Mums might sit around and talk about how much they would love outstanding male role models for their children, but when it comes down to it, they often don’t want men too close. They want male teachers — but not around their little girls. Male carers aren’t allowed to change nappies. They’re not allowed to take a child to the toilet without the supervision of a female worker. Is that fair and equal?”
Unsurprisingly, the few male childcare educators often notice this and decide to leave the field and retrain in a different industry. One man recounts how a false accusation resulted in posters with his face and name plastered all over his community. Even when the accusations were proved to be unfounded, he still was not allowed to return to work at his childcare centre and eventually left the field entirely.

In reality, both internal and external factors matter for everyone.

There is a sizeable body of evidence that on average, men and women differ in some aspects of personality. Those differences are relatively small, but at a population level, may explain some of the gender disparity in various industries, including men’s lack of interest in caregiving fields and women’s lack of interest in STEM fields.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that the existence of average group differences never justifies individual discrimination. It’s a tricky distinction, but average group differences doesn’t mean all women score higher in a trait than all men, or vice versa. Nor does it say anything particularly interesting about any individual. Our unique personalities, values and preferences vary widely. I’ll leave further reading for Scott Barry Kaufman’s honest, nuanced summary of the evidence, and his reminder:

“We should treat all people as unique individuals first and foremost… if an individual shows the interest and ability to enter a field in which their sex is extremely underrepresented (e.g., women in math and science, men in nursing and education), we should absolutely be encouraging that individual to enter the field and do everything we can to help them feel a sense of belonging.”
The point is, choice doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s in everyone’s best interest to remove all external barriers and all discrimination. We can all benefit from more freedom to choose.

I once again defer to the inimitable Annabel Crabb. “If women and men have some sort of instinctive or primordial urge to behave a cer­tain way, then let them do so in circumstances of utter freedom to do otherwise.”

If we want to normalise fathers taking parental leave and caring for their young children, we need to at least be comfortable with men being caregivers more broadly.

I kind of feel like a fraud even saying I’m a stay-at-home dad. Yes, my wife works full-time. Yes, I’m at home with our daughter. But she’s at daycare some days now, and her wonderful grandparents spend regular weekday mornings with her. I’m also still working and studying. Life is busy, but I haven’t truly hit pause on my own aspirations. I’ve just modified them to fit our new reality.

I do the bulk of the housework, shopping, and admin, but my wife cooks more often. And at the insistence of our tiny overlord, she’s still the fearless bedtime routine leader.

We’re approaching our best approximation of a genuine 50–50 split, which is an enormous credit to my wife, especially when I think of some other couples I know with breadwinner fathers. Though I do think the fact we’ve both had a turn at work and a turn at home has given us more insight and empathy for each other and our daily challenges. There’s no substitute for experience.

We do our best to share the load, communicate, and pick up the slack when the other’s running on empty, sort of like our own version of Brene Brown’s 80/20 rule. Though we’re nowhere near perfect.

And I’m certainly not asking for a pat on the back myself. This arrangement happens tens of thousands of times in reverse, and mums don’t get any special accolades for creating the conditions for their partners to continue progressing their career.

And that’s kind of my point.

If we want to close the gender pay gap, if we want more women in leadership, if we want a fairer distribution of unpaid domestic work, we need more men at home.

This isn’t about forcing women to go to work or men to stay home. For some people, the traditional gender roles are an arrangement where everybody’s happy. Great. No judgement here. Do what works for you.

It’s about equality of opportunity and freedom of choice. It’s about working together to remove the social and economic barriers that prevent men and women from choosing freely and equally.

Motherhood is not for everyone. Being a CEO is not for everyone. Caregiving is not for everyone. But equality of opportunity should be for everyone. We owe it to our children to create a world where everyone can flourish.

We were all children once.

And children, so I’ve heard, are the future.

Guest Blog by Rohan Williams

Subscribe to the DEI Bites newsletter

Get your fortnightly 3 minute update on the latest Diversity, Equity & Inclusion events, insights and industry research.

Further reading

How to build a genuinely diverse and inclusive tech workforce without underestimating women’s abilities and potential.
By prioritizing Diversity and Inclusion, startups can tap into a multitude of benefits that will propel their success. Let’s explore.
Uncover the differences between traditional and progressive HR and how the latter is essential to build diversity and inclusion in the tech industry, especially on the verge of the fifth revolution.