5 Essentials for Balancing Whānau and Work

Six in 10 bachelor degrees in New Zealand last year went to women, and yet New Zealand is ranked among the worst in the world for women on boards.

One of the biggest causes of this discrepancy is that caregiving is typically taken on by women. But the old-fashioned homemaker/breadwinner model is past. It is time for a change.

It is time for men, as much as women, to adjust their careers for work away from the workplace. It is time for New Zealand to re-evaluate the value we place on work at home, be it caregiving, household management or community involvement.

It is vital that the law incentivises men to take parental leave.Unfortunately, due to societal norms, deeply engrained expectations and a variety of other factors, men tend not to use shared parental leave even when it is offered to them. Researchers have found that men need to be strongly encouraged by social policy to take a more equal portion of parental leave.

While it is good news that parental leave increases from 18 to 22 weeks in July this year, New Zealand’s ‘primary carer plus partner’ approach discourages parents from sharing leave. Last year 30,252 women in New Zealand took paid parental leave. The number of fathers? 324. A primary-carer policy needlessly pushes couples into old-fashioned breadwinner plus homemaker roles when all the research suggests it is better for the parents, children and society to divide childcare responsibilities more equally.

Some countries, such as Sweden, have introduced use-it-or-lose-it paternity leave. It had an immediate impact when the law came in a quarter century ago, with more than eight in 10 men taking it up. The reform led to three wins. Firstly, a more equal sharing of care for sick children. Secondly, an increase of women in the labour market. Thirdly, an overall improvement in gender equality in the home sphere.

Research by the Prince’s Responsible Business Network in the UK found four key components for shared parental leave success. Leave should be non-transferable – in effect, a father quota. Secondly, the leave must be well-paid; if parental leave is unpaid or low paid, as it is in New Zealand, Ireland and Spain, take-up is much lower. Finally, leave must be flexible and offer equal income and time off to both parents.

It is vital that men, as well as women, take parental leave. This ensures that women are not penalised in the hiring process – when men and women are equally likely to take parental leave, there is no disadvantage in hiring a woman. It ensures that both parents are caring for the child from day one. Data show that this leads to enhanced child’s development and improves the relationship between the two parents. Research shows that the more parental leave fathers take, the more likely mothers are to return to work full-time.

It is vital that men and women share parenting, household management and community involvement. This ensures that women are not unfairly penalised for balancing parenting and work. Again,when men share covering school holidays and kids’ sick days, when both men and women are equally able to put in extra hours, strive for senior positions or travel for work, there is no disadvantage in hiring a woman. The more than men see other men stepping up to ‘work away from work’, the more it will become the norm.

When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern posted on Instagram on 19th Januarythis year she thrilled people around the world with her unconventional announcement. Not only was she to become the first head of government to give birth while in office in nearly thirty years, but her partner Clarke Gayford is set to join a minority group of kiwi men taking the lead with childcare responsibilities and household management. Minister for Women Julie Anne Genter announced seven weeks later that she too was expecting; likewise, her partner Peter Nunns will be the fulltime caregiver.

The amount of time New Zealand men spend caring for children has risen dramatically in the last 40 years, but unlike with these two high profile politicians’ families, kiwi women still spend two to three times as much time on childcare.

It is vital that we enable parents and caregivers to work if they choose to. Caring, of course, doesn’t finish at the same time as parental leave payments stop.

‘Companies are missing a trick [if they don’t make workplaces inclusive]; mums are masters of multi-tasking and efficient working,’ said one of the parents we spoke to for our Whānau and Work newsletter edition. Women and other caregivers bring so many talents, skills and experiences to the workplace that we don’t want to miss out on.

But when kiwi parents want to cut back on their working hours to spend more time on childcare, senior level part-time jobs are hard to come by. For those (still mostly women) who do work part-time, many take disproportionate salary cuts or drop down to more junior positions. If carers and parents aren’t to be punished for their double juggle, more companies need to advertise professional and senior roles with the option to work flexibly, part-time or to job share.

It is vital that men and women share unpaid whānau care. While the focus today is on encouraging men to share household and childcare responsibilities, we need to take care that this equality in the home is not abandoned when the children leave home and we start caring for ageing parents and grandparents instead. Caring for elderly whānau will be of growing importance over the coming decades, with the number of superannuitants expected to balloon from 730,000 today to 1.3 million in 2039.

Your Stories

Many of you have been in touch recently with your experiences of how you make the juggle work, and we are delighted to feature a number of your stories this month. From a 50/50 approach and advice from working mums, to the secret life of a stay-at-home dad, these heart-warming stories offer practical advice along with reassurance that you’re not the only one facing the challenges and rewards these responsibilities bring.

The Minister for Women and Prime Minister set a wonderful example to families at home and around the world, but New Zealand still has a lot to do to level the playing field for the women and carers who aren’t running the country.




Further Reading and Resources:



Reforms in the Swedish parental leave system and their effects on gender equality

Swedish Social Insurance Inspectorate




The Impact of Taking Parental Leave on Fathers’ Participation In Childcare And Relationships With Children: Lessons from Sweden




Causal Effects of Paternity Leave on Children and Parents

The Scandinavian Journal of Economics




How a parental leave policy changed the way Sweden sees fatherhood





Hilary Rau

A Winning Parental Leave Policy Can Be Surprisingly Simple




Why Parental Leave For Fathers Is So Important For Working Families

US Department of Labor




Men Should Take Parental Leave – Here’s Why

Shelley Zalis