Women undertake the lion’s share of paid parental leave in Aotearoa, with men making up just over 2 per cent of those using it. But would more men go on parental leave if more time off was financed? Katie Harris finds out when one company puts this to the test.
When Sammy Phillipson was planning to start a family with his wife, taking three months off to care for the babies was never on the table.
“It just wasn’t a financial opportunity for our family,” the national business manager says, lamenting on the costs of their Auckland mortgage.
As his wife, Naomi Williams, was to be the primary caregiver, under New Zealand law Phillipson was only entitled to two weeks of unpaid partner’s leave, at a time when the family’s costs would be rising.
But in October 2021, when his first child, Margot, was 15 months old, his employer, beverage company Lion, implemented a new policy allowing all parents to have 12 weeks of paid time off following the birth of their children.
Maternity leave is technically for the first year of the baby’s life, but carers at Lion are able to take the 12 weeks anytime in the first two years of their child’s life.
Lion had been offering the paid leave to the primary caregiver for more than three years. This was on top of the Government’s parental leave allowance, which was upped to six months from July 2020.
But since Lion’s extension to all new parents, the company says it is now seeing a 50/50 split of men and women taking parental leave.
Initially, Phillipson took a four-week block off work, before taking every second Friday off to care for his growing daughter.
“When I told my friends I was taking some time off, people who probably hadn’t taken paternity or maternity leave just thought it was going to be a holiday.
“I really underestimated how hard it was being at home, and I think when people go to work and leave someone at home, the primary caregiver, well I definitely did, I underestimated how challenging and how important that role was in the household.”
Taking the leave, he said, gave him an opportunity to help as his wife went back into the workforce and build a stronger relationship with his children.
“The primary caregiver gives up a lot in terms of the length of being pregnant right through to taking time off work.”
With Claude, who turns 2 in August, Phillipson’s wife returned to work when he was 9 months old, so Phillipson took 12 weeks in one go.
He believed attitudes to different types of parental leave were changing, but there was still a “massive stigma”.
However, as more men go on paternity leave, and more companies like Lion introduce similar policies, he said this stigma is being reduced.
“The things you get out of it, they were really awesome. I’ll never get that time back and I think people that supported me into it said that I don’t think you appreciate it until you actually do it.”
As a keen runner, one of his fondest memories of his parental leave was hitting the pavement “rain, hail or sun” with his child. As well as waking up and being able to take both of his children to the library and down to the playground, seeing them push each other while playing.
“It’s lots of little things that you don’t appreciate when you’ve only got two days off work.”
While most women took their leave in a block (83 per cent) the company said almost all men who had taken advantage of the company’s offer (97 per cent) had their parental leave spaced out.
Lion New Zealand people and culture director Jacquie Shuker told the Herald on Sunday the company had been on a journey for “fairness for all”, inclusion and diversity for a number of years.
“These are the specific policy steps, for example, paid parental leave, that mean that people do feel like they do belong here, that they have the opportunity to live and work well.”
Since the leave was implemented for all parents, she said the outcomes have exceeded their expectations in terms of men taking up the offer.
“It is I think a no-brainer in terms of a key policy for organisations in being an employer of choice and retaining talent.”
She said they had received “heartwarming” feedback about the parental leave.
“People feel so fortunate and grateful, but it’s also setting their families up in the best way possible.
“Parenting is a team game, and we’re setting up sharing the care right from the start and it’s enabling both partners to participate and set up those routines around parenting and then clearly the children benefit from it as well.”
Lion is not the only company offering additional help for new parents. Financial services firm EY is another with extra support - from next month employees with any service period get 26 weeks of paid parental leave, which can be used flexibly and during the child’s first 24 months.
In November, Contact Energy announced it would offer primary caregivers a full salary top-up for the 26 weeks Government parental leave period, 3 per cent KiwiSaver for the duration of the worker’s parental leave and six months of flexible working, meaning employees can choose to work 80 per cent of their normal weekly hours but still receive full pay for their first six months.
It would also give primary carers $5000 towards childcare, 10 days special leave for pregnancy-related appointments, three months free power for employees who are also customers and a food package with pre-prepared meals on the arrival of the baby.
Employees who become parents but are not the primary carer are also offered four weeks of paid leave, which can be taken over 13 months, three months of free power as well as the meals on baby’s arrival.
Vodafone announced last year it would top up the Government payment to full pay for 22 weeks, give primary carers an extra 26 days of paid leave and give partners 26 paid leave days that could be used flexibly over two years after the birth.
In August Z Energy said it would contribute 5 per cent towards KiwiSaver for all employees on parental leave for their entire parental leave period and pay employees working part-time (more than 20 hours a week) 5 per cent towards their KiwiSaver based on their full-time salary equivalent rather than their actual pro-rate pay.
In 2018, NZME, the Herald on Sunday’s parent company, started offering a $5000 one-off payment to permanent employees who are primary carers, when they start parental leave. This is the equivalent of an additional nine weeks of paid leave.
NZME also offers two weeks of paid leave to partners.
Consultant and speaker in the leadership space Dr Ellen Joan Nelson believes staff will be more committed and engaged as a result of the change.
Nelson, who created the #workschoolhours movement in response to the frustration she experienced as a working parent, said the more organisations can offer to support parents, the better it is for the business as well.
“I kind of don’t see this as Lion doing some lovely thing, I feel like this is a commercially smart business move for them to do because I reckon they’ll be getting back what they’ve put in.”
The first benefit Nelson sees in policies like this is improved staff well-being, as it can help alleviate challenges staff face outside of work.
There’s also a benefit with attracting and retaining staff, she said; they will have a competitive advantage over other employers because of their improved working conditions.
“The third one is around changing the dial when it comes to representation of women in the workplace, especially in senior leadership positions.”
While not every woman becomes a mother, she told the Herald on Sunday that if an organisation is serious about improving representation on their leadership team, the biggest thing they can do is reduce the “mum penalty”.
“If you make conditions that make it easier for parents, they’ll be more loyal, they’ll be more engaged and they’ll make you more money.”
What is available to new parents in Aotearoa
Primary caregivers in Aotearoa are entitled to take up to 52 weeks of parental leave.
Government-funded paid parental leave, with payments ranging from $212-$661 a week before tax, is covered for one continuous period of up to 26 weeks.
The second half of the year is unpaid “extended leave”, eligibility for this depends on how long someone has worked for the same employer, and their hours worked.
Although paid parental leave can be split between partners, it is uncommon - out of the more than 57,000 people receiving paid parental leave in 2021/22, only 1254 were men.
Fathers or partners are entitled to two weeks of unpaid leave if they’ve worked for their employer for 12 months or longer.