Shifting the view on parental leave: one conversation at a time

There is a subtle shift in the way organisations are thinking about parental leave. Traditionally, women have taken on the role as primary caregiver; now some organisations are helping drive a broader change in the way men use parental leave. Why? Because while men share much more of the hands-on parenting role at home, few men take parental leave from work. Even in Sweden which has one of the world’s most generous parental leave policies for men and women, only one in 4 men take the leave they are entitled to. But that’s far better than most countries where, according to the OECD, fathers account for less than one in five.

The OECD also records that only one in 50 Australian men take paid parental leave (in addition to the standard two weeks offered by most companies). Professor Richard Fletcher (Faculty of Health and Medicine Family Action Centre at the University of Newcastle), says a lot more needs to be done to encourage parents to take leave, “to avoid the ongoing costs of things like depression and children’s difficulties, which cost the whole community a lot of money”.  Deloitte Partner, Justin Algie shares his thoughts about taking parental leave, “I’ve always had the view I wanted to be hands on and involved in the care of our children, but then society doesn’t always agree with that view”.

Creating public dialogue about fathering and parental leave is one of the ways forward. Lendlease (a Global property developer) is helping to foster that conversation. To celebrate Fathers’ Day Lendlease worked with the Swedish embassy to profile in Sydney Australia a series of inspiring photographs of Swedish fathers with their children for the month of September. We spoke with Gina De George, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Lendlease about this initiative and its impact, and workplace flexibility more broadly.

What was the pivotal starting point for you influencing the workplace flexibility movement?

Moving to Barangaroo ( in Sydney’s CBD provided a great opportunity to collaborate with other companies in the precinct on key diversity and inclusion challenges that we all face as large organisations. The aim was to provide a collective voice to amplify the conversation and drive action. Personally, I am incredibly energised by collaborative projects as I definitely believe the sum of us is greater than the parts.

Our first project together came about through a conversation I had with Emma Walsh, founder of ‘Parents At Work’, a leading provider of working parent programs for mums and dads. By bringing together our collective ideas and networks, we had the opportunity to bring the ‘Swedish Dads’ photo exhibition to Australia, together with the Swedish Embassy.

“Swedish Dads” is a series of intimate portraits of men on parental leave with their children and the work of Johan Bavman, a Swedish photographer and father. The exhibition has enabled us to start and continue the conversation about men and caring responsibilities.

As a precinct, we have been active in sharing the exhibition (shown at Barangaroo Towers, Sydney from September 5-29) with all employees, clients, visitors and the general public who come here. It has enabled us to connect across businesses and also take the conversation broader than our own four walls. We’ve invited men back into the Diversity and Inclusion ‘conversation’ which I feel is integral, through a series of parenting workshops throughout September and I know that Deloitte have also lent their voice to this issue with a recent focus on asking ‘Deloitte Dads’ to share their experience of parental leave in order to help change the face of parenting.

What have you been able to achieve so far and why has this collective voice been successful?

As the younger generation of workers start their families, addressing parental leave will become a necessary conversation for all organisations to have if they are serious about attracting talent, retaining and promoting them and supporting their wellbeing. The exhibition is an avenue for starting these conversations. Hearing from some of the men who have taken the parental leave pathway, we can take note of the benefits they have found. One Dad said, “it is great for improving opportunity in the workforce for women and great for dads and their overall wellbeing and sense of connectedness to their families too.”

When you first started at Lendlease 5 ½ years ago – what surprised you about the workplace flexibility?

Starting at new company and a new job with a new baby was exhausting back then. However, Lendlease was fantastic at supporting me with the flexibility to work from home one day a week and carer’s leave when I needed it. Having started my career at a time when flexibility in the workplace was virtually non-existent, it has been amazing to watch how the workplace has changed in the last 10 years in relation to flexible work. There is still change that needs to happen but I am confident that we’ve gone beyond the tipping point to making this the ‘new normal’.

What has been the biggest challenge and change since you started in your role?

I think the biggest challenge for Lendlease as a highly diverse business is how we make our flexible work arrangements as practical and accessible as possible for all employee whether they are in our head office, regional locations or out ‘on site’.

In our Property division, we have circa 55% women however in our Building division we have circa 21% of women. We realised that to be a sustainable Building business we needed to tap into the whole talent pool and to practically address how we could attract and retain more women.  It was a big turning point as this was being driven by the business unit and was a business need rather than a separate HR initiative.

A key driver of success for this initiative was leadership. Dale Connor, CEO of Building business consistently demonstrates fantastic leadership and sets the benchmark of what is expected for inclusivity.

At the same time we (Lendlease) were involved in a 3 year research study with the University of NSW which focused on women in construction. The University identified the barriers to recruitment, promotion and retention and demonstrated what we needed to do differently to create opportunities for women in our industry. This research provided additional guidance on the challenge and backed up what we were doing in-house at Lendlease.

Not surprisingly, flexibility surfaced as one of the key enablers for greater workforce participation and retention of women in construction. It also surfaced that many men, especially younger men, also wanted greater access to flexible work and parental leave to spend time with their families. There is still a huge stigma for men in all organisations and society about this.

This is a bigger challenge than just for Lendlease – that’s why the opportunity to showcase the Swedish Dad’s photo exhibition was a great catalyst for addressing the need for change.  View the photos here.

For more information, contact Charlotte Jameson or Gina De George

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