Parental leave is much more than a short-term leave entitlement for working mothers. Good parental leave policies support all parents and help create an equitable workplace that allows everyone to lead a balanced life, with time for families, and time to commit to projects, practice life and career.
The Champions of Change Architecture Group practices have all developed and implemented Parental Leave policies, and are keen to share the knowledge assembled with the wider architectural profession.
This article was developed as part of a set that draws on the Champions of Change Architecture Group Parental Leave Toolkit with the aim of sharing knowledge and experiences of parental leave policies within the wider architecture profession.
Architecture is a people-driven, service-based profession. The practice and the individuals in it succeed when the team succeeds. A good parental leave strategy is essential to this mutual success.
Over the course of a career, many people need to devote more time to families than is supported through traditional working models. Families require love and attention, and caring responsibilities change and fluctuate over time. It is also important to acknowledge that sometimes things don’t go according to plan – an individual or their partner might give birth prematurely, experience the loss of a miscarriage, have a still birth or need to go through other avenues like IVF, surrogacy or adoption. None of this should be incompatible with dedication to a career in architecture.
Parental leave strategies and cultures support team members through life transitions, ensuring that these do not become a barrier to professional growth. They acknowledge that becoming a parent has an impact on both individuals and the practices for whom they work. They promote fairness and equity and support a balanced approach to how time is spent, how skills are gained, and how support is provided – all of which encourages a mutually beneficial working relationship.
A positive culture that supports parents in the workplace recognises that great architecture is the result of many hands and minds working in collaboration and that people at different life stages and with varying experiences all have much to contribute. This means valuing the quality of thinking and work produced, rather than measuring the quantity of time working.
Parenting is a long-term endeavour. Workplace cultures that support the full contribution of parents recognise that Parental Leave is more than a leave entitlement – it is a broader strategy that addresses the preparation in the years BEFORE and the transition required AFTER the significant changes that comes with having children.
This article covers:
The Case for Good Parental Leave
Many benefits flow from the implementation of good parental leave policies and the cultures that support these.
The more immediate, pragmatic business benefits are the retention of experienced, committed staff with broad skills and knowledge and diverse experience and connections. Good staff retention ensures that practices can accrue long-term benefits from the time and money they have invested in professional development. Good parental leave policies also assist with industry-wide positioning as a practice of choice in the competition for talented architects and graduates.
A workplace culture of fairness and equity is the right thing to do ethically. It can also create a reputational boon with public and private clients, as well as encouraging diverse leadership within practice and all the attendant benefits that come with that.
Supporting all employees with parental leave policies also has wide-ranging benefits for society as a whole, ensuring that everyone has a chance to lead a balanced life. Individuals are supported to fulfil caring responsibilities, children are able to spend time and be cared for by all parents and/or guardians, encouraging equal parental responsibility and equal opportunity for career growth.
Watch Chi Melhem talk through the business benefits of parental leave support – from the Light at the End of the Tunnel session on Parental Leave.
Meeting the Challenges
The challenges associated with parental leave are multi-faceted and relate to wider social and cultural norms. Recognising, anticipating and ameliorating these is an important aspect of developing effective policy and a work culture that welcomes parents, supports their career progression and development, and ensures they are able to contribute to the practice to their full capacity.
The interconnected challenges must be navigated by individuals and the practice together.
Parents on leave need to stay connected to the life of the practice while away and negotiate the conditions of their return to ensure career growth. Juggling their career progression and new caring responsibilities is an ongoing project, the contours of which will shift and change over time.
Practices must implement an equitable parental policy that is fair and inclusive of all parents, regardless of gender, job description and circumstances, while still ensuring good project outcomes and running a productive, profitable business.
The guidance offered in the next section, Strategies Before, During and After Leave, and the companion article, Developing an Effective Parental Leave Policy, help individuals and practice to meet these challenges.
In Australia, there are social and economic challenges that prevent the secondary carer (often the father) from taking parental leave. The country does not have a nationally legislated ‘shared parental leave’ approach and, as such, fathers are often labelled as ‘secondary carers’. In fact, the Australian government defines the ‘primary carer’ as ‘the birth mother of a newborn child’, an adoptive primary carer or another person caring for a child under ‘exceptional circumstances’. There is an expectation that ‘biological fathers and partners of the birth mother’ will take ‘Dad and Partner Pay’, which is only two weeks compared to 18 weeks given to the ‘primary carer’. For many, it does not make sense financially for the partner of the birth mother to take more than two weeks leave.
Most organisations provide limited parental leave allowance for secondary carers, if any at all. This divide is reinforced by entrenched social views of the breadwinner/homemaker gender ideals. Fathers and other ‘secondary carers’ are conscious of a stigma and bias around taking extended leave, especially when they are unable to see many of their male colleagues taking leave. This situation ensures that the bulk of the responsibility of childcare in the first year inevitably falls on the primary carer, creating a chasm in career progression that inevitably grows wider if the primary carer returns to part time work and takes on the majority of domestic and care responsibilities.
Maintaining and progressing careers
Many individuals in architecture report difficulty returning to work, especially after a long parental break. Their work life is often radically changed on their return, and opportunities for professional development and career progression may be limited. Meaningful part-time work is still too scarce, and the breadth of work and their status in the office is all-to-often compromised. Part-time workers are often perceived as not being serious about their work and career, with assumptions that their priorities have shifted elsewhere.
We need to change perceptions around breaks to raise children, care for others or manage an illness, so that these are also understood and accepted as part of a career. The challenge for employees and practices is to understand and value the full range of skills and experiences gained through various types of breaks, to ensure that a break is prudently thought out and carefully managed, and that the return-to work life is mutually positive.”2014 Parlour Survey respondent
Juggling commitments and costs
The high cost of childcare in Australia makes returning to work impossible for some due to financial pressures. A lack of meaningful part-time work within traditional architectural practice is another big obstacle. A common pathway for women who are unable to enjoy the same job satisfaction is to leave and start their own practice. This way they have more control over when, where and how they work. There are often financial penalties, however.
Superannuation is currently not paid to parents on paid parental leave, and the reduced superannuation savings of part-time and contract workers merely increases the financial gap. There is no doubt that women face greater risk of economic insecurity in retirement than men, with women retiring with half the savings in superannuation than men, according to the 2017 Hilda survey. A 2016 Senate report found one in three women retire with no super at all. There is a strong connection between reduced superannuation savings and the time that primary carers (often women) take out to have children and look after them.
Strategies for before, during and after leave
Considering parental leave beyond the entitlements involves a holistic approach that ensures individuals are well prepared before leave and equitably supported in their transition back to work.
Before Parental Leave
Practices can develop supportive and flexible work cultures that help individuals to build a strong foundation of experience before they go on leave.
Embedding a family friendly culture
Education & support
During Parental Leave
Practices can develop strategies to provide improved financial and career support for individuals.
Paid Parental Leave
Pay Increases & Promotions
Superannuation & long service leave
Keeping in touch days (KIT)
The purpose of keeping in touch days is to provide a framework that enables individuals to keep in touch with their employment and hence assist in their transition back to work.
Return to Work
Practices can offer support to those returning to work in a variety of ways – this can include financial support and social / cultural support. Financial initiatives can help individuals manage time and increase opportunities to continue their career progression, while a supportive network can help individuals manage the pivotal changes of starting or growing a family. Both also return benefits to the practice.
The cost of childcare can make it cost prohibitive for individuals to return to work more than two or three days per week. If a practice pays for one day of childcare for a period of time, it may allow an individual to return to work an extra day a week. This extra day could potentially be the difference to achieving improved productivity, time management and increased opportunity to lead projects.
Return to work bonus
A return-to-work bonus could be payable after an employee has returned to work following parental leave. This can be an incentive for individuals to return and commit to the practice, and could be awarded after the first year as a lump sum.
Systems, software and processes often change while an individual is on leave. Assess what training can help individuals transitioning back to work to upskill and/or manage the changes to the way they work.
Return to work plan
Establish a return to work plan for each individual, which tailors their transition back to work. The plan should allow for at least a 2-3 month period of review and support while individuals adjust to their new circumstances.
Be flexible to respond to changing needs.
A support network
Various strategies can assist individuals with coping with the new challenges of being a parent.
(The following information was correct in June 2022. Check Services Australia and the Fair Work Ombudsman websites for up-to-date information on Parental Leave Pay and eligibility)
The Australian Government Parental Leave Pay (PLP) Scheme is based on the weekly rate of the National Minimum Wage. Primary carers can receive payment for up to 18 weeks, which is 90 payable days. This can be claimed for one set period (up to 12 weeks, or 60 payable days) plus one flexible period (including 30 Flexible Paid Parental Leave days).
Eligible working dads and partners (including same-sex partners) get two weeks leave paid at the National Minimum Wage.
Employers often provide paid parental leave in enterprise or other registered agreements, employment contracts and workplace policies. The amount of leave and pay entitlements depends on the relevant agreement, contract or policy.
Employer-funded paid parental leave doesn’t affect an employee’s eligibility for the Australian Government’s PLP Scheme. Employees can get both.
For more information on introducing a Parental Leave policy, see How to Create an Effective Parental Leave Policy.
This article was compiled by Susie Ashworth and Justine Clark as part of a set that draws on the Parental Leave Toolkit, created by the Champions of Change Architecture Group. Valuable assistance was given by Monica Edwards and Susanne Jensen of the Champions of Change Architecture Group Advocacy and Comms Focus Group.
Contributors to the CoC Parental Leave Toolkit include Thihoa Gill (Grimshaw), Gemma MacDonald (DKO), Amy Lyden (Nettleton Tribe), Laura Saunders (DKO), Jason Embley (Grimshaw), Nicole Allen (Grimshaw), R. Johnston (Peddle Thorp), Yi-han Cao (Tzannes), Karyn Dodman (Tzannes), Tara Keast (DesignInc), Dave Tordoff (Hayball), Sandeep Amin (at the time DesignInc) and Chi Melhem (at the time Tzannes).
Stepping Up is a collaboration between Parlour, the ACA and the Champions of Change Architecture group.