A former US Senator once quipped that "no one on his deathbed ever said 'I wish I had spent more time at the office'."
I've recently announced my retirement from Westpac and that sentiment is something I'm reflecting on as my days in fulltime employment come to an end.
In my case I certainly wish that I'd spent less time in the office and more time with my two daughters when they were young and growing up. But even 30 years ago, in my jobs in law and banking, it just wasn't done – and it wasn't so much frowned upon as just not thought of, even by me. The more rigid structures of the corporate world earlier in my career simply didn't allow me to contemplate taking afternoons off to watch the school choir or spending every second Friday helping with day care, let alone taking a "career break" for several months or years to help raise the kids.
In the decades since, it's become common for businesses to offer employees more flexibility. It's a great concept. But, in practice, flexibility too often results in women adjusting their hours to pick up extra domestic duties, while men stoically, and sometimes reluctantly, grind it out at work until closing time.
This disparity in gender roles is exacerbated after a child is born, with the primary caring and child raiser – in most cases women – taking parental leave, while their partner keeps on working. In many cases this is influenced by the fact the male partner already earns more, so it makes economic sense for him to keep working, but this amplifies the pre-existing gender pay gap.
These unwritten rules of home life create disadvantages for men and women. They penalise women for taking career breaks to have children, directly through less paid hours worked, and indirectly through disruption to their careers, leaving them at a lasting disadvantage in terms of pay and promotions to men of similar education and ability. They also encourage men to focus more on their job and less on their family.
I'm pleased to see those old rules starting to break down; perhaps never more rapidly than over the past year. The massive disruption - and blurring - of home and work life caused by Covid-19 has changed not just our habits but also our attitudes. While for many families it's been a difficult and traumatic year, it's also shown us how we can improve our lives by doing things differently.
Our new "Sharing the Load" report is based on a survey of more than 2400 Kiwis, and reveals that men estimate they do 43 per cent of the unpaid work at home (on average), while women estimate they do 69 per cent of the unpaid work. Unpaid work incorporates things such as household chores and carer responsibilities.
There's one obvious problem with those numbers – they add up to 112 per cent, and I suspect the men are overestimating. Importantly though, both sexes said they would like to change those figures – men said they'd be keen to take on more of the load at home, and increase their input to 46 per cent; while women would prefer to cut their share back to 62 per cent.
The report's modelling – based on the preferences expressed in the survey - puts the economic boost from women participating more fully in the workforce at $1.5 billion. Think of what that alone could buy – thousands of affordable homes, better healthcare for all – or the jobs it could create.
But what excites me more is what sharing the load could mean for us, our children, and their children.
Imagine a household in which mum is freed up to grow her talents in paid employment while dad is freed up to spend more time taking the kids to the park or doing some of the chores.
Imagine their children growing up in a home where both parents are equally present and there's no either/or choice between kids and career.
And imagine those children taking that well-rounded upbringing and entering a workforce where young women are on an equal footing, so their children will view the days of male bread winners and female bread bakers as some strange relic of the past.
Some countries don't have to imagine. In Nordic countries such as Finland and Sweden, parental leave has been changed to aim at incentivising a more equal split between parents. Those changes have created an impact on how couples share the parental load. The common sight of men taking their toddlers for a lunchtime stroll and meeting friends for lunch at child-friendly cafes has even inspired the Swedish phrase "latte papas".
How can we get more balance here in New Zealand?
Clearly, implementing a Scandinavian parental leave policy would be costly and challenging, especially in a country with a much lower tax base. But there are some first steps the Government could explore, like removing the "primary care giver" concept in the parental leave rules to encourage more taking of parental leave by fathers, or making it simpler and easier for couples to share the existing entitlement. It would also be worth re-examining the accessibility to and affordability of childcare, which holds many mothers back from re-entering the workforce.
Businesses also have a part to play. Our report concluded that employers can help parents split domestic responsibilities more equally by normalising flexible working and working from home. Two days a week working from home, for instance, could mean two more hours a week spent with the kids, instead of in the car or on a bus.
At Westpac, we acknowledge there's lots more we can do to support sharing the load. We've integrated flexible working into our business for many years. Like most businesses this has taken a quantum leap forward in the past year, but there is still much more we can do, and we are committed to staying on this track.
There is also a lot we can do as individuals right now to share the load more equally in our own homes. I'd challenge everyone reading this to think about something they've done differently since the pandemic first hit that helped balance the parental workload – it could be as simple as sharing cooking duties, or changing the school drop-off routine. Is there more we could do?
If you're an employer, do you encourage men to work flexibly or take parental leave as actively as you encourage women to do the same?
My hope is that if we start asking these questions and changing now, my own daughters will retire in a society where women enjoy greater financial equality and everyone has fewer regrets about how they spent the most important and fruitful years of their lives.
• David McLean is chief executive of Westpac NZ.