What is parental leave and why does it matter?
Parental leave is much more than a short-term leave entitlement for working mothers. Good parental leave policies are applicable to all, helping create an equitable workplace that allows everyone to lead a balanced life, with time for families, and time to commit to projects, practice life and career. The following article outlines the benefits and challenges of good parental leave policies, and some recommended strategies to implement before, during and after leave.
This article was written and compiled as part of a set that draws on the Champions of Change Architecture Group’s Parental Leave Toolkit. The Champions of Change Architecture Group practices have all developed and implemented Parental Leave policies, and are keen to share their knowledge and experiences of parental leave policies within the wider architecture profession. Members of the Champions of Change Architecture Group are dedicated to best practice parental leave and will continue to evaluate their resources to ensure that raising a family won’t derail or devalue the career of a talented and valued individual.
Architecture is a people-driven, service-based profession. The practice and the individuals in it succeed when the team succeeds. A good parental leave strategy is essential to this mutual success.
Over the course of a career, many people need to devote more time to families than is supported through traditional working models. Families require love and attention, and caring responsibilities change and fluctuate over time. It is also important to acknowledge that sometimes things don’t go according to plan – an individual or their partner might give birth prematurely, experience the loss of a miscarriage, have a still birth or need to go through other avenues like IVF, surrogacy or adoption. None of this should be incompatible with dedication to a career in architecture.
Parental leave strategies and cultures support team members through life transitions, ensuring that these do not become a barrier to professional growth. They acknowledge that becoming a parent has an impact on both individuals and the practices for whom they work. They promote fairness and equity and support a balanced approach to how time is spent, how skills are gained, and how support is provided – all of which encourages a mutually beneficial working relationship.
THE CASE FOR GOOD PARENTAL LEAVE
Many clear benefits flow from the implementation of good parental leave policies and the cultures that support these.
The more immediate, pragmatic business benefits are the retention of experienced, committed staff with broad skills and knowledge and diverse experience and connections. Good staff retention ensures that practices can accrue long-term benefits from the time and money they have invested in professional development. Good parental leave policies also assist with industry-wide positioning as a practice of choice in the competition for talented architects and graduates.
Demonstrating a workplace culture of fairness and equity can prove a reputational boon with public and private clients, as well as encouraging diverse leadership within practice and all the attendant benefits that come with that.
Supporting all employees with parental leave policies also has wide-ranging benefits for society as a whole, ensuring that everyone has a chance to lead a balanced life. Individuals are supported to fulfil caring responsibilities, children are able to spend time and be cared for by all parents and/or guardians, encouraging equal parental responsibility and equal opportunity for career growth.
A positive culture that supports parents in the workplace recognises that great architecture is the result of many hands and minds working in collaboration and that people at different life stages and with varying experiences all have much to contribute. This means valuing the quality of thinking and work produced, rather than measuring the quantity of time working.
Parenting is a long-term endeavour. Workplace cultures that support the full contribution of parents recognise that Parental Leave is more than a leave entitlement – it is a broader strategy that addresses the preparation in the years BEFORE and the transition required AFTER the significant changes that comes with having children.
MEETING THE CHALLENGES
The challenges associated with parental leave are multi-faceted and relate to wider social and cultural norms. Recognising, anticipating and ameliorating these is an important aspect of developing effective policy and a work culture that welcomes parents, supports their career progression and development, and ensures they are able to contribute to the practice to their full capacity.
The interconnected challenges must be navigated by individuals and the practice together.
Parents on leave need to stay connected to the life of the practice while away and negotiate the conditions of their return to ensure career growth. Juggling their career progression and new caring responsibilities is an ongoing project, the contours of which will shift and change over time.
Practices must implement an equitable parental policy that is fair and inclusive of all parents, regardless of gender, job description and circumstances, while still ensuring good project outcomes and running a productive, profitable business.
The guidance offered in the next section, Strategies Before, During and After Leave, and the companion article, Developing an Effective Parental Leave Policy, help individuals and practice to meet these challenges.
Navigating gendered access and impact
In Australia, there are social and economic challenges that prevent the secondary carer (often the father) from taking parental leave. The country does not have a nationally legislated ‘shared parental leave’ approach and, as such, fathers are often labelled as ‘secondary carers’. In fact, the Australian government defines the ‘primary carer’ as ‘the birth mother of a newborn child’, an adoptive primary carer or another person caring for a child under ‘exceptional circumstances’. There is an expectation that ‘biological fathers and partners of the birth mother’ will take ‘Dad and Partner Pay’, which is only two weeks compared to 18 weeks given to the ‘primary carer’. For many, it does not make sense financially for the partner of the birth mother to take more than two weeks leave.
Most organisations provide limited parental leave allowance for secondary carers, if any at all. This divide is reinforced by entrenched social views of the breadwinner/homemaker gender ideals. Fathers and other ‘secondary carers’ are conscious of a stigma and bias around taking extended leave, especially when they are unable to see many of their male colleagues taking leave. This situation ensures that the bulk of the responsibility of childcare in the first year inevitably falls on the primary carer, creating a chasm in career progression that inevitably grows wider if the primary carer returns to part time work and takes on the majority of domestic and care responsibilities.
Maintaining and progressing careers
Many individuals in architecture report difficulty returning to work, especially after a long parental break. Their work life is often radically changed on their return, and opportunities for professional development and career progression may be limited. Meaningful part-time work is still too scarce, and the breadth of work and their status in the office is all-to-often compromised. Part-time workers are often perceived as not being serious about their work and career, with assumptions that their priorities have shifted elsewhere.
“We need to change perceptions around breaks to raise children, care for others or manage an illness, so that these are also understood and accepted as part of a career. The challenge for employees and practices is to understand and value the full range of skills and experiences gained through various types of breaks, to ensure that a break is prudently thought out and carefully managed, and that the return-to work life is mutually positive.” (2014 Parlour Survey)
Juggling commitments and costs
The high cost of childcare in Australia makes returning to work impossible for some due to financial pressures. A lack of meaningful part-time work within traditional architectural practice is another big obstacle. A common pathway for women who are unable to enjoy the same job satisfaction is to leave and start their own practice. This way they have more control over when, where and how they work. There are often financial penalties, however.
Superannuation is currently not paid to parents on paid parental leave, and the reduced superannuation savings of part-time and contract workers merely increases the financial gap. There is no doubt that women face greater risk of economic insecurity in retirement than men, with women retiring with half the savings in superannuation than men, according to the 2017 Hilda survey. A 2016 Senate report found one in three women retire with no super at all. There is a strong connection between reduced superannuation savings and the time that primary carers (often women) take out to have children and look after them.
PARENTAL LEAVE STRATEGIES – before, during and after leave
Considering parental leave beyond the entitlements involves a holistic approach that ensures individuals are well prepared before leave and equitably supported in their transition back to work.
BEFORE PARENTAL LEAVE
Practices can develop supportive and flexible work cultures that help individuals build a strong foundation of experience before they go on leave.
Embedding a family friendly culture
Flexibility and removing the stigma
Working flexibly enables a wide range of benefits for all staff and is not specific to being a parent. However, flexibility is a key factor in embedding a family friendly culture and removing the pressure and stigma of “absenteeism” for parents. For guidance, case studies and resources on Flexibility, see our Flexible Work section.
Encourage the open sharing of diverse experiences to help build understanding and provide valuable insights. This can occur by encouraging employees to attend external events such as the Parlour Salons, and by developing similar internal programs that can be tailored to the practice.
A key milestone
After years of study and practice, becoming a registered architect is an important milestone in an individual’s career. The registration process is time consuming and can become a barrier for individuals once they have started a family. Encouraging registration for all individuals as early as practical helps to provide a more equitable career platform before going on parental leave.
Assessing the opportunities
One benefit of filling out the logbook for registration is that it also helps identify any gaps in an individual’s experience. Addressing these gaps can help focus on opportunities to upskill staff in key areas, which provides them with a stronger platform of experience before going on parental leave.
Important questions to consider:
- How can the practice encourage staff to become registered before they go on leave?
- Does the practice provide training or financial support to allow staff to become registered?
- Does the practice reward staff for becoming registered (for instance, is there a pay increase or minimum requirement for promotion?)
- How does this investment of increased registered architects benefit the business?
Education and support
Difficulties and loss
Starting a family is a deeply personal experience, and may include a range of difficult experiences – for example IVF, adoption and surrogacy, miscarriage and still birth. The journey can be long and painful for some.
Practices should consider how individuals can be supported through this time and how awareness can be improved to help colleagues understand sensitivities. Broad education for the whole practice is also beneficial.
A safe and supportive environment is imperative. Practices should consider if an EAP (Employees Assistance Program) can provide some level of support to individuals and coping mechanisms through these times.
Additional health and wellbeing leave
Health and WellBeing Leave is additional leave offered above statutory provisions. Practices could consider offering a number of extra days each year, which would not carry over to the next year.
Taking this leave is discretionary and allows individuals to take the time off to focus on their health and wellbeing. The reason for the leave does not need to be disclosed to employers.
This may be very helpful for those experiencing challenges in preparing for family.
DURING PARENTAL LEAVE
Practices can develop strategies to provide improved financial and career support for individuals.
Paid Parental Leave
Consider equal leave entitlements to both primary and secondary carers. By removing the differentiation between carers, gender biases and financial imbalances can be mitigated, helping to encourage greater equity for parents and in turn equalise career disruptions. Consider offering Grandparent Leave in addition to Parental Leave.
Refer to the Parental Leave Matrix to understand what initiatives are used in the industry. Use this to help you benchmark where your own practice would like to be.
Use the Parental Leave Calculator to assess the costs and returns of adopting various initiatives.
Pay Increases & Promotions
Ensuring pay equity
Benchmarking pay scales is important to ensure there is a parity range for each role/ level within the practice. This should include those on leave to manage an equitable remuneration band at each level of the business. It also ensures individuals are not further penalised for taking parental leave.
Promotions are an acknowledgement of experience, skill and talent achieved by an individual, which allows them to advance into the next role. This proven record does not change because an individual goes on leave. Be sure to consider those on parental leave when evaluating the structure of the practice and promotions due.
Every individual who is promoted requires some initial support and mentoring while they transition into their new role. This is no different to a person returning from leave. The support may focus on slightly different factors; however, it ultimately is a time investment for the growth and success of your practice.
In addition to a loss of income, loss of superannuation has a big impact on those taking Parental Leave. This not only results in 9.5% loss for the period without pay, it also is a compound loss of interest until retirement. When multiplied by the number of children an individual may choose to have, this penalty is significant. Super is an expense deducted from the company turnover and therefore reduces tax. This should be considered when assessing the business case.
Long Service Leave
Like superannuation, consider accruing long service leave through the parental leave period.
Keeping in Touch Days
The purpose of keeping in touch days is to provide a framework that enables individuals to keep in touch with their employment and hence assist in their transition back to work.
Speak with each individual to understand what they may find valuable for keeping in touch days. Agree some options before they go on leave and reassess this closer to the start of the “keeping in touch days” as priorities may change.
Stipulate a frequency in the Parental Leave Policy and tentatively book in dates. This can be reassessed closer to the date, based on how the individual is going.
Be flexible and responsive. Individuals cope differently with changes in circumstances – some may simply want a conversation, others may wish to take on some training or work to keep their minds active. Tailor the days to suit the individual.
If an individual agrees to perform work-related tasks while on parental leave, they should be paid for their time.
RETURN TO WORK
Practices can offer support to those returning to work in a variety of ways – this can include financial support and social / cultural support. Financial initiatives can help individuals manage time and increase opportunities to continue their career progression, while a supportive network can help individuals manage the pivotal changes of starting or growing a family. Both also return benefits to the practice.
The cost of childcare can make it cost prohibitive for individuals to return to work more than two or three days per week. If a practice pays for one day of childcare for a period of time, it may allow an individual to return to work an extra day a week. This extra day could potentially be the difference to achieving improved productivity, time management and increased opportunity to lead projects.
Return to work bonus
A return-to-work bonus could be payable after an employee has returned to work following parental leave. This can be an incentive for individuals to return and commit to the practice, and could be awarded after the first year as a lump sum.
Systems, software and processes often change while an individual is on leave. Assess what training can help individuals transitioning back to work to upskill and/or manage the changes to the way they work.
Return to work plan
Establish a return to work plan for each individual, which tailors their transition back to work. The plan should allow for at least a two to three month period of review and support while individuals adjust to their new circumstances.
Be flexible to respond to changing needs.
A support network
Various strategies can assist individuals with coping with the new challenges of being a parent.
A buddy system
Consider establishing a buddy system that allows parents to transition back to the office with a “buddy” who can lend support, advice and check-in informally.
HR Pulse Check
Set up informal checks that allow the HR manager to check in with staff. These sessions should focus on the individual – they are not conversations about performance or salary.
Flexibility and balance
There is no rule book for being a parent. Every stage of a child’s life brings new challenges and changes. The key for both the individual and the practice is to be flexible and find the most productive ways to manage an effective work balance. Refer to “How to create an effective flex policy” for information on how to integrate flexibility strategies.
(The following information was correct in June 2022. Check Services Australia and the Fair Work Ombudsman websites for up-to-date information on Parental Leave Pay and eligibility)
The Australian Government Parental Leave Pay (PLP) Scheme is based on the weekly rate of the National Minimum Wage. Primary carers can receive payment for up to 18 weeks, which is 90 payable days. This can be claimed for one set period (up to 12 weeks, or 60 payable days) plus one flexible period (including 30 Flexible Paid Parental Leave days).
Eligible working dads and partners (including same-sex partners) get two weeks leave paid at the National Minimum Wage.
Employers often provide paid parental leave in enterprise or other registered agreements, employment contracts and workplace policies. The amount of leave and pay entitlements depends on the relevant agreement, contract or policy.
Employer-funded paid parental leave doesn’t affect an employee’s eligibility for the Australian Government’s PLP Scheme. Employees can get both.
For more information on introducing a Parental Leave policy, see “How to create a good parental leave policy” for your practice.
This article was compiled by Susie Ashworth and Justine Clark as part of a set that draws on the Parental Leave Toolkit, created by the Champions of Change Architecture Group. Material was also drawn from the Parlour Guide to Equitable Practice on Career Breaks. Valuable assistance was given by Monica Edwards and Susanne Jensen of the Champions of Change Architecture Group Advocacy and Comms Focus Group.
Contributors to the CoC toolkits include Thihoa Gill (Grimshaw), Gemma MacDonald (DKO), Amy Lyden (Nettleton Tribe), Laura Saunders (DKO), Jason Embley (Grimshaw), Nicole Allen (Grimshaw), R. Johnston (Peddle Thorp), Yi-han Cao (Tzannes), Karyn Dodman (Tzannes), Tara Keast (DesignInc), Dave Tordoff (Hayball), Sandeep Amin (DesignInc) and Chi Melhem (at the time Tzannes).