Renae Joseph, national director of operations and marketing at Initiative Australia, is about to have her third child, so she knows about leave policies.
“I’m as close to an expert as you can get in this space,” she quips. With her first baby six and a half years ago, her company at the time provided six weeks of paid “maternity” leave. When her second came along, she had just joined a new company, so she didn’t qualify for paid leave at all. She took time off unpaid, which was a financial strain, although she and her husband were able to swing it.
Now, with her third child’s arrival imminent, everything is different. Initiative, like many other agencies in Australia, now offers a generous parental leave policy.
"I've been with Initiative now for long enough that I qualify for the maximum, which is amazing,” Joseph says. “I'm so thrilled, I'll get 16 weeks. It’s just incredible to have four months of paid leave. It just takes a huge burden off. Obviously, kids are expensive, so to have 16 weeks of paid maternity leave is really great.”
Joseph also recognises that better parental-leave policies pay off in many ways beyond her own situation. And agency leaders agree, citing advancement of DEI goals, increased employee loyalty and the simple cost-benefit analysis of retaining highly trained and effective employees as they add parenting to their lists of accomplishments.
While preparing our just completed Agency Report Cards for 2021, we saw that when it comes to parental leave, Australia leads the way, with both the government and agencies there recognising the value of providing generous paid leave to the primary caregiver of a newborn or newly adopted child—regardless of that caregiver’s gender identity. ‘Maternity leave’ is now an antiquated and abandoned term down under, not only because the term ‘parental leave’ is inclusive of same-sex couples but also because it recognises that men can and do assume the role of primary caregiver, which in turn can help keep women in the workforce.
While policies in other markets tend to hew closer to government requirements, which in many cases are woeful (Hong Kong, for example, allows just five days of paid 'paternity' leave, at four-fifths pay), agencies in Australia are enjoying the benefits of their progressive policies—and evolving them further.
Benefits of benefits
Initiative changed from maternity leave to parental leave in 2018, and its policies have evolved several times over the years, to, for example, include pension contributions for the duration of the primary caregiver’s unpaid leave, which can be up to 12 months.
“The enhanced entitlements were initially intended to help families to better balance work and family life, enable both parents to be involved in raising children, and support women’s return to the workforce,” says Erin Jakubans, chief people officer at Initiative Australia. “Our enhanced paternity benefits signal a flexible attitude to the challenges of life outside of work, and in our experience they have been shown to boost a parent’s feeling of goodwill towards the company, foster loyalty and help to retain working parents hoping to return following their period of parental leave.”
But even looked at in colder monetary terms, ample parental leave is a winning policy.
“Once we were able to navigate through the necessary fiscal approvals following a detailed cost-benefit analysis, it became clear that the benefits outweighed the costs, including lower attrition, resulting in a reduction of recruitment and training costs, enhanced satisfaction and engagement levels of our people, and efficient transitions for employees between work and parental leave," says Jakubans.
With the war for talent that’s ongoing, Joseph observes, “it seems crazy to me that you wouldn't try and retain”. After all, some parents choose not to take the maximum entitlement, so the analysis clearly shows “it's worth supporting your workforce through that really important stage of their journey”.
M&C Saatchi Australia is another agency that is seeing clear benefits from revamping its policies.
Back in 2017, the company only offered six weeks of paid leave after two years of employment to mothers, and one week of paid leave after two years of service for dads, says Aleece Dening, HR operations advisor for M&C Saatchi Group AUNZ.
The agency knew it was behind the times, along with the whole industry, she says. “Through our exit interviews at the time, roughly 70% of the women who left the business were looking for benefits that gave them access to have a family. We knew we needed to change our ways of working.”
Today the company provides 12 weeks of parental leave for primary caregivers, regardless of gender, and also offers a slew of additional measures, including “unquestioned” flexibility for those going through fertility treatments (or supporting a partner who is), a graduated transition back to work for parents coming off leave, and flexibility during the first week of school and school holidays.
“Research has shown that women who take paid maternity leave are far more likely to return to the workforce, and companies that have expanded their parental paid leave offerings have seen the attrition of new parents drop significantly,” Initiative’s Jakubans says. “We don’t have any hard stats on whether this has directly impacted more people returning to work. However, we do feel this is the case. We are hoping to be able to evidence this in the future as our technology evolves.”
Like M&C Saatchi, Initiative too continues to evolve its offerings. The company recently announced support for parents on leave to further develop their skills. Launched to align with International’s Women’s Day and dubbed ‘Maternity Masterclass’, the offering is, despite the name, open to employees of any gender who are taking leave as the primary caregiver for longer than six months. It provides A$3,000 (about US$2,200) for accredited and remote learning programmes.
“One of the most pervasive and perennial barriers to achieving true gender equality, sadly, is maternity leave,” Jakubans says. “Women effectively lose a year’s worth of career progression when they take time off to not just have children but to raise them during their formative years. Whilst the world has come far in this space, offering full pay and [pension] contributions, there is more that needs to be done to ensure equality.”
Joseph plans to take advantage of the masterclass opportunity in the latter part of her leave (she’s planning on taking a total of 11 months off for child three). But she adds that the ways companies have evolved away from strict hours and the butts-in-seats mentality of the past (a process aided by the pandemic) plays a key role in bringing parents back to work.
"Better support and better access to leave and funding certainly makes a huge difference with being able to go back to work,” she says. “But it’s less about the paid parental leave. It's actually more about when you go back. Transitioning back to work as a parent is, for mums, dads, anyone of any gender identity, so challenging. It's that bit when the kids start going to daycare and all get exposed to all the bugs, and you're constantly having to stay at home and look after them. So having the flexibility is huge. That has made it viable for me to be able to work.”
Indeed, along with policies, culture around the acceptance of parenting is changing for the better, Joseph observes. It’s especially heartening, she says, to see dads “leaving loudly” for parenting-related tasks such as school pickups, as opposed to quietly sneaking off as if there was something wrong about doing so. “We have senior executives being really open about it,” she says. “It really helps the younger generation see that it’s viable to go ahead and have kids and continue a career progression.”
M&C Saatchi reports that around 10 dads have taken full advantage of its 12 weeks of leave by declaring themselves the ‘primary’ caregiver for a new child.
The experience with parental leave carries valuable lessons. When companies take the time to understand what people really need in their lives, and then support those needs—rather than treating benefits like a gift bestowed begrudgingly—then those companies tend to find that by ‘giving’, they get a lot in return. And once that happens, it’s amazing what else might change.
For example, M&C Saatchi recently added compassionate leave for miscarriages at any stage of pregnancy, regardless of gender. Initiative and many other companies inside and outside of media have similar policies in place.
Dening says many who experience pregnancy loss suffer in silence. But her explanation of the thinking behind the policy shift is a beautiful statement that applies far beyond this one issue. Indeed, it’s one many agencies would do well to embrace:
We are a team of almost 500, with many mothers, fathers, partners, carers, aunties, uncles and godparents among us. Our families, immediate and extended, are why we get up every morning and create the work that we do. We are focussed on continuing to create a culture which fosters humanity and brings light to topics like this which really impact our people.