With gender equality a burning issue in Australian workplaces, law firms are looking at how countries like The Netherlands make life easier for men wishing to help out more at home.
Main image: James Clarke on the way to daycare with son Ronan.
When it comes to flexibility around parental leave, the Dutch are doing better than us Aussies. It’s much easier for fathers managing a career and parenthood in The Netherlands to have time with their kids than it is for fathers in Australia. It’s quite normal, for example, for Dutch fathers to take a regular “daddy day” or, as they say in The Netherlands, a “papadag”.
When it comes to gender equality in law and the sharing of parental responsibilities, the statistics and research findings are grim. Recent data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) found the gender pay gap in Australia still sits at around 14 per cent. Commentary on the data has largely centred on the view that until men are afforded more flexibility and start taking on more of the caring responsibilities, we will be hard pressed to lower that figure.
There are, however, some surprising beams of light within the legal profession, which indicate the tide is slowly turning.
Daniel Stoddart, a senior equity partner at Hall & Wilcox in Newcastle, puts it bluntly: “We have to keep coming back to the point that for women’s lives in the profession to change, men’s lives must also change.”
And Stoddart has recently done just that – made a change. Since January this year, he has worked a nine-day fortnight so he can be with Violet, 5, and Hilda, 2. It has meant giving up 10 per cent of his draw and gaining some particularly good days with his girls. It also means his wife, Louise, a senior manager at the University of Newcastle and a PhD candidate, gets a straight run one day a week with Stoddart at the helm at home.
Since making the move, Stoddart says he’s had nothing but support from his firm and the broader profession.
“The first time I wrote on my ‘out of office’ that I was parenting my two daughters every second Wednesday, the response from the profession and clients was universally great,” he says.
“So many men told me that they wished they had done it. Somehow, a lot of us men are programed to think that bringing money home is our most significant contribution, when actually time is more important.”
Jason Elias, CEO of Elias Recruitment – Specialist Legal Recruiter in Sydney, has noticed that law firms in Australia are gradually starting to offer more flexibility to allow fathers this time.
“In-house roles have tended to be more flexible and family-friendly in the past, but firms have really started to catch up,” says Elias.
“Men are definitely asking about flexibility. There is a real talent shortage, so employers who don’t offer it are missing out on candidates. The holy grail of partnership at a top-tier firm – and working crazy hours to get there – is less appealing now. Many lawyers would prefer a senior in-house role with a Google or Facebook. Some also want time to work on other projects – either family, pro bono or side hustles.”
Another major strike against dads being able to easily take leave is, arguably, the decade-old Australian Government Paid Parental Leave Scheme (PPL). It provides “eligible primary carers” up to 18 weeks, and partners up to two weeks, paid parental leave at the national minimum wage.
This is not really father-taking-leave friendly. Experts at The Australian National University say the policy needs a refresh in order to get more dads using it.
“The scheme is not flexible enough for mothers and fathers. The 18 weeks minimum pay can be transferred to fathers, but this is rarely done because it is received by the primary carer,” says Liana Leach, Senior Research Fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health.
“As the policy stands, parents need to make a decision about who the primary carer is in the family, and thus the leave is only transferred to fathers in about two per cent of cases.”
In practice, dads across all industries tend to take employer parental leave, rather than government-funded parental leave. For the legal profession, this makes firm arrangements for parental leave more important than ever.
In The Netherlands, the culture and government provisions ensure it is normal for fathers to take a day off a fortnight in order to care for their children.
The cultural context is critical. A key plank of Dutch life is a healthy respect for working hard, yet not letting your work life get in the way of the rest of your life. UNICEF consistently ranks The Netherlands as having the happiest children in the world, and this appreciation for work-life balance, for both parents, is reportedly one of the main reasons Dutch kids do so well.
Pieter Huizing, Senior Associate at Allen & Overy in Amsterdam, is father to Duco, 2. His wife Sofie is a senior manager in PwC’s forensics department. When Duco was born, A&O granted Huizing five days leave (two days was the government granted leave at that time, now it is five days). He topped it up with two weeks of annual leave, bringing the total to three weeks. Sofie took six months leave – four months paid by the government and two months unpaid.
Huizing then started taking parental leave one day a fortnight – “papadag”. His wife did the same – “mamadag”.
The parental leave is unpaid, and a right granted by the government. Parents can take half a year of full-time, unpaid leave in the first eight years after the birth of their child. This can also be spread out by taking one or more days a week or fortnight for a longer period.
“My feeling is that in The Netherlands there is already quite a lot of awareness that even lawyers may not work full-time,” says Huizing.
“Of course, clients still expect perfect responsiveness and timely advice. In addition to flexibility, this requires good internal and external communication, time and expectations management and planning.”
Back in Australia, Ashurst is a firm which says it is taking the parental leave journey seriously and heading more into “papadag” territory.
When James Clarke became a dad to Ronan 22 months ago, he was able to take two-and-a-half-months parental leave. Leading up to the leave he was supported by one-on-one parental leave coaching. He says he went on leave feeling confident that he would make the most of that opportunity and return to the office with new skills that have made him a better lawyer.
Clarke describes the time with Ronan as a “great experience” and, since returning to work, has found that his team and the partners in it have been very supportive.
“They recognise that sometimes my family requirements conflict with work requirements, and we’ve been able to work around it and support each other,” he says.
Similar to the Huizings in The Netherlands, Clarke and his wife both work a nine-day fortnight and equally share day care drop-off and pick-up responsibilities. Clarke credits Ashurst’s supportive culture for making this possible.
Since returning from parental leave, Clarke has been made a partner and is keen to become a positive role model for his colleagues. He does this by “being seen to balance my work and caring responsibilities on a day-to-day basis, and informally discussing my experiences with them”.
Over in the accounting profession, Stephen Edwards, Senior Manager at PwC, has just come back from taking May to July 2019 to be the primary carer of his children, Noah, 3, and Darcy, 1, while his wife, Sara, went back to work part-time as a high school English teacher.
“It was incredibly helpful for my wife to return to work and have me at home in the driver’s seat with things somewhat under control,” he quips.
“My colleagues were incredibly supportive, and I did not feel any pressure while away from the office. I think there was some natural envy from friends who would love to have access to programs such as what PwC has to offer, but mostly they were just really keen to know more.”
While the “papadag” isn’t yet part of the fabric of Australian life, those dads taking it are certainly reaping the rewards. Stoddart reports that despite still “getting it wrong” from time to time, his commitment to time with his girls gives him “a lot of laughs and joy”.
“There is something about pushing your child on a swing in a park that makes the world fall away,” he says.
“It has made me a better lawyer.”