Parenting Equality: Where have we come from and where are we going?


When it comes to parenting equality, at work and at home, we certainly have a way to go. For one, only 5 percent of dads work part-time, compared to 38 percent of mums. Then, there’s the fact that many companies are resisting the move towards flexible work, or the fact that more than 85 percent of dads take 4 weeks or less parental leave**.

But the statistics only tell one side of the story, and that is: the incredible progress we’ve made to get to this point at all. Here’s a quick trip into the annals of history to explore what work and parenting was (and wasn’t!) in the past, and what we could potentially hope for in the future: 

Working mothers 

These days, we take for granted the fact that women can work after having children. But as little as half a century ago? This wasn’t the case. The so called ‘Marriage Bar,’ a law that prevented women in the public service from working after they tied the knot, was in place in Australia until 1966. 

The rationale behind the law was twofold. Firstly, it was thought that women may not be capable of performing the dual roles of work and home life. And secondly, once a woman was married, it was thought that she shouldn’t be allowed to ‘double-dip’ by having a husband provide for her plus earn a wage.*** 

Despite how discriminatory the law sounds now, at the time it had full support, even from the unions. They apparently didn’t want women - who were cheaper to hire - to undercut men in what was a tight job market***.

Even after the bar was officially lifted in 1966, things were slow to change, with widespread discrimination against women - and especially working mothers - still rampant. Thankfully though, this started to change more rapidly in 1984, when the Sex Discrimation Act (now the Equal Opportunity Act) outlawed discrimation on the basis of sex, marital status, pregnancy or breastfeeding. 

The Act, plus the feminist movement meant that more mothers worked than ever before. In 1981, only 43 percent of mothers worked, whereas now, 65 percent of all mothers do.****

Flexible work

If flexible working is the gold standard upon which we can all better manage work and parenting, then a quick glance at the technology available to support it would lead you to think ‘what a time to be alive.’ But the available tech doesn’t quit paint the whole picture, or at least, it certainly didn’t in the past. 

The ability to work from anywhere, at anytime has been around since the internet took off in the mid-1990s, or at the very least, until Tim Ferris told us all we should only work 4 hours a week in the early 2000s. 

We might have been able to work flexibly, but this didn’t mean our employers would let us. Prior to the introduction of the right to request flexible work (enshrined in law in the National Employment Standard in 2010), research showed that many employers were ‘reticent to embrace flexible work policies which required an adjustment to not only the way they operated, but they way they thought.’*** Many said they were ‘concerned’ or ‘extremely concerned’ about the new entitlements for parents and were worried that the changes would impact on productivity and workplace culture. 

Despite employers’ concerns, flexible working slowly and surely started to grow. But it wasn’t without significant backlash. Many employers refused to embrace it, including Merissa Myers, who in 2013 famously revoked all flexible working at Yahoo!.

Dads at home 

It wouldn’t be parenting equality if dads weren’t as able to make the free choice to stay at home. And although some would argue that this choice is far from ‘free’ today (as dads that stay home are twice as likely to have their requests for flexible work denied******, among other reasons), at least it’s somewhat of a choice.

In decades gone by, men were expected to work full-time - it just wasn’t considered acceptable or desirable for men to stay home and raise children. This ideal was so popular that in the late 1960s, Dorothy Fields famously remarked: 

‘The man in our society should be the breadwinner. Women have enough to do as the homemaker, wife and mother.’ 

Yet stereotypes are breaking down. Research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies******* show that the number of stay-at-home dads has slowly increased from the 1980s, where it was virtually zero. Numbers these days are more promising: in 2011, there were approximately 68,500 stay-at-home dads and now there are more than 80,000.

When will we reach parenting equality? 

In Australia, it’s been just over 50 years since the marriage bar was lifted, and we’ve made considerable progress since that time. More mothers are working than ever, flexible work is considered more normal and more dads are staying at home. But what is it going to take to reach full equality? We have more than an inkling... you can read about it here in our manifesto, download it for free today: Work in 2050: How Everyone Wins in a Parent-Equal world.


*Inside HR

**Sydney Morning Herald

***Sydney Morning Herald

****Australian Institute of Family Studies

*****Smart Company

******ABC News