More Misunderstanding of Work-Life Balance

July 24, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

The public discourse on men, women, family and “work-life balance” never seems to get matters quite right. This article by Australian Nicola Heath is no exception (ABC, 7/20/17). She’s well-intended, but, like so many others before her, hamstrung by her unexamined assumptions. Heath assumes that, because we live in an age in which gender interchangeability is widely espoused, people generally want to cast aside traditional gender roles. And yet, even a casual look at data from all over the world demonstrates to a certainty that, whatever elite opinion-makers may want us to want, the jury is still out on the abandonment of sex roles.

Heath’s argument in a nutshell is that, if Australia just gave equal parental leave time to fathers and mothers, mothers would be helped at home and fathers would get to spend more time with their kids. Everyone would benefit. Nice.

These gender roles feel entrenched, but a simple change in policy could turn them on their head: introduce a use-it-or-lose-it paternity leave scheme, like the one available to families in Norway.

She points out that, in Australia, women get 18 weeks of paid leave while fathers only get two. Now, I’m all for gender equality in the law, so naturally I support fathers and mothers receiving equal leave time following the birth of a child. I can think of no reason for not equalizing parental leave for men and women. If we need to add some time to mothers’ leave to allow them to recover from the ordeal of giving birth, I’m OK with that too.

But my stance on that is strictly political. Equality is equality and men and women should have equal opportunities and rights under the law. Heath presents herself as egalitarian, but her assumptions suggest otherwise.

In the 10 years before we had kids, my partner (who is now my husband) and I studied at university, travelled, worked full time and split the chores fairly evenly. The birth of our daughter was like a grenade landing in our gender-neutral utopia. Suddenly, our roles diverged. I was on maternity leave, breastfeeding around the clock, not sleeping much and now expected to do the housework.

Women are expected to manage their family’s domestic life and it’s reflected in the census data: one in five men say they do zero hours of unpaid domestic work each week, while about 12 per cent of women say they do more than 30 hours.

Meanwhile, the men in these women’s lives seem to have vanished altogether. As is invariably the case with articles like this, the writer never lets on about how much more paid work men do than do women or how much more they earn or how that takes them away from their children. Nor does she mention that full-time motherhood, particularly in the child’s early years, is women’s preference and that their husbands and partners make that happen by their hard work and sacrifice. No, Heath wants us to believe that she and her husband were, in some way, passive victims of some power outside of them.

“Suddenly, our roles diverged.”

No, you and he decided to arrange your life with little Andy or Jenny differently than you had before the child was born. Yes, the state offered you more time off than it did your husband, but that lasted for a grand total of four and a half months, scarcely a life-altering event. How did you divide up parenting time and time at paid work afterwards? I’d bet good money that Heath was happy to do most of the parenting while her husband did most of the earning. I’d do that because that’s the story of most parents’ lives. It’s the story of most parents’ lives because the biochemistry of parenting behavior among Homo sapiens strongly urges mothers to mother and fathers to be backup parents. It’s no surprise to see men and women behaving accordingly.

Maybe Heath doesn’t know the information on mothers’ and fathers’ behavior or on parenting hormones. But at least she might take a look at her own life that clearly bears out what I say.

When I went back to work after 12 months at home with my daughter, who is now four, it was part-time. My experience is common: according to ABS data from 2013, mothers in Australia take on average 32 weeks maternity leave, and 84 per cent return to work in a part-time role. Meanwhile, 70 per cent of partners who take leave are back at work in two weeks.

Does she not notice that, while her paid leave was only 18 weeks, she actually took off 52 weeks? Does she understand whose earnings paid the bills during that time? What does it mean to her that most mothers take more than their allotted 18 weeks and that when they do return to work, it’s just part-time? It’s crystal clear that, whatever parental leave policy is in effect, it won’t have any influence on what mothers do after their leave time elapses. Heath’s assumption is that women are champing at the bit to go back to work and earn, without noticing the plain facts that they prefer childcare to paid work.

It means that in Australia, female workforce participation in relatively low by global standards at 59.3 per cent. What’s more, men earn more. Women make up 71.6 per cent of all part-time employees, which means they are more likely to be overlooked for promotion. And men far outnumber women in leadership roles.

When she says “it means,” Heath indicates that unequal leave policy results in low female workforce participation. But that’s so much nonsense. Again, as Dr. Catherine Hakim has demonstrated, women’s preferences lead them toward markedly less paid work and more childcare than men’s. Heath assumes that, but for some sinister government policy, women would be working and earning just like men do. It’s just not true.

In an interesting bit of journalistic sleight of hand, Heath then moves on to Norway which she assures us is a virtuous paragon of exactly what she’s talking about. According to her, Norway has equal and generous parental leave and – presto! – more women in the workforce and more men in childcare. But, what began as an article chock full of data on Australian mothers and fathers, all of a sudden turns into this:

I asked a uni friend who is raising his family in Norway about his experience. Ben moved to Oslo in 2007 with his Norwegian girlfriend, now wife. They have three kids aged seven, five and five months.

Ah yes, from facts and figures in Australia to a single anecdotal family in Norway. That’s Heath’s way of demonstrating how differently the two countries treat the sexes and the work-life balance. To be blunt, Heath hasn’t a clue about how men and women in Norway approach that work-life balance.

Now, Hakim doesn’t include statistics from Norway in her paper on women’s preferences, but she does include them from Germany, another nation that offers generous and gender-equal parental leave.

Hakim divides people up into three groups, “Home-Centered,” “Adaptive” and “Work-Centered.” Home-centered are those for whom “family life and children are main priorities throughout life.” Adaptive are those who “want to work but aren’t totally committed to a career.” Work-centered people are “committed to work or equivalent activities.”

In Germany, with its family leave policy that’s so similar to what Heath lauds in Norway, 14% of women are home-centered, 65% are adaptive and 21% are work-centered. By contrast, no men are home centered, 33% are adaptive and 67% are work-centered. In short, German parental leave policy didn’t make much of a difference, if any, in men’s and women’s behaviors regarding work and family.

This article tells us that only 38% of German fathers take any parental leave at all and 80% of fathers stayed off work for two months or less following the birth of their child (The Local, 1/13/14). I doubt that Norwegians are significantly different and if they are, it’d be impossible to attribute the difference to parental leave policies that are so much the same as Germany’s.

Heath of course knows none of this.




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