Some baby steps vital in waking up to role of fathers


You won't remember the 2004 British game show Shattered. Nobody does. A group of contestants were put in a house and were not allowed to sleep for a week. The pool of prize money shrank whenever somebody dozed off, and the eventual winner walked away with £97,000. It had a cult following among university students with too much time on their hands, but it understandably bombed in the TV ratings.

A decade later, with a two-week-old baby in my house (as well as a two-year-old), I understand why. Who would want to watch a show that reminds them of the sleep deprivation that comes with the joy of parenting? At least in the show it was only one week. I have friends with three kids under three - a sleepless week for them is a breeze.

While discussing the imminent birth of my daughter with these friends a few weeks ago, conversation turned to new roles for dads as they try to play a larger part in raising children.

They were all proud dads, husbands and boyfriends. Most were in solid careers and some were even making payments on their first house. Despite the best efforts of both government and employers to provide parental leave entitlements, however, their choice of whether to stay at home with their own newborn had not been as simple as it should be.

The pressure comes from their employers, managers and colleagues, and ranges from unspoken disapproval to blunt confirmation that staying at home would be career suicide. It would let the team down and put pressure on everyone else. Obviously this is a decision young mothers also face; a fact that Americans Sheryl Sandberg and Samantha Power have both written about recently. It is an issue that both parents encounter.

After a bit more discussion, and maybe a few more cold ones, the guys also conceded that the most frustrating pressure they felt was from friends and co-workers in the form of subtle and blokey peer pressure.

This included insinuations that they were doing "women's work", being emasculated, "whipped", or given the short end of the stick; that their choice was somehow an inferior one. This is of course nonsense but it will not come as a surprise to most men reading this. Our bloke culture is fantastic for pulling big egos down a peg, but it fails when it perpetuates the prevailing sexism in Australia. C'mon guys, enough is enough.

Mind you, it is not just an Australian problem. British Prime Minister David Cameron took two weeks' leave after the birth of his daughter and even he had to endure an inevitable slugging in the press for his efforts, as though Westminster would grind to a halt in his absence.

In Australia we have legislation that entitles fathers to a minimum of two weeks of paternity leave, should they choose to take it. There is also government-funded dad and partner pay available for two weeks at the rate of $622.10. This is of course in addition to periods of ''parental leave'' for either parent who is the primary carer.

While most fathers will take a few days off around the time of the birth, the legitimacy of this leave remains contested. Since Labor introduced paid parental leave in 2011, it is estimated that every month the scheme supports 10,000 women, but fewer than 20 men, a ratio of approximately 500 to 1.

In simple terms, 99.5 per cent of parents opting for more than a few weeks of paid leave in Australia are women. As a father, I know that these early months are essential for mother and baby to bond as well as establish breastfeeding. There's also a need for time to recover from birth.

We also know that the rate of stay-at-home dads is growing significantly. But for dads who will continue their engagement with the workforce, there is a real need for more workplace flexibility.


More than 45 per cent of working women do so part-time. Just over 16 per cent of male workers are part-timers. We need to get to a point where it's OK for a dad to ask to work part-time or take sick leave to care for an unwell child. It's tough for many working women to do this but for men it still seems to be taboo.

Most countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have already come a lot further than Australia to overcome prejudice in gender roles and encourage men's work and family balance. Not to stretch the metaphor, but we need to wake up. We are well behind, and we can do much better.

Senator Sam Dastyari is a former general secretary of the NSW Labor Party.