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Let's hear it for the boys

23 December 2020

(updated 6 November 2021 to include extended commentary on parental leave entitlements)

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On the Basis of Sex

Question 1:  What do Annabel Crabb and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have in common?

Answer 1:  They both challenged discrimination on the basis of gender from the male perspective.

To upend stereotypes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (known to many as the Notorious RBG) often targeted laws that disadvantaged men.  In the 1970s, she recognised that an appellate court, composed entirely of male judges, would find it easier to identify with male appellants.  Using this strategy, she argued six cases before the Supreme Court, winning five.


Included amongst them was Moritz v. Commissioner.  Charles Moritz had hired a nurse to help him care for his aging mother so he could continue to work.  Moritz was denied a tax deduction for her care because at the time such deductions were specifically limited it to "a woman, a widower or divorcée, or a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalized.”  Ginsburg saw the case as an opportunity to challenge the many laws that assumed that men will work to provide for the family, and women will stay at home to take care of their husbands and children.  In 1972, the Court found unanimously in Moritz's favour.  


Ginsburg went on to co-found the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, which struck down many of the gender-based laws identified through Ginburg’s legal proceedings.  In 1993, the Senate voted 96 to three for her to become an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.  On 18 September 2020, the Notorious RBG succumbed to metastatic pancreatic cancer and passed away at the age of 87.  This article is dedicated to her memory.


On the Basis of Sex, the 2018 biopic which tells Ginsburg’s story leading up to and during the Moritz court case, is one of my all-time favourite movies.


The Wife Drought and Men at Work, written by Annabel Crabb in 2014 and 2019 respectively, rank amongst my favourite and most thought-provoking reads.  For those from outside of Australia, Crabb is a well-known and much loved Australian political journalist, commentator and television host. 


Like many other mums, before and after me, I have often quipped in half humour “I need a wife!”  I can remember the exact circumstance of when I first proclaimed this.  First full time job.  First baby.  My work had asked me to come in while on maternity leave to contribute to strategy discussions on a proposed merger of two government departments.  I felt honoured to be privy to such important discussions as the opinions of only an select few were solicited.  So, naturally, I moved mountains to find and equip someone to care for my little girl while I went to work.  As I sat frazzled at the meeting table, two senior executives, one from each department, were highly amused as I ran through the reasons why I needed a wife to take care of things on the home front.  However, I suspect that the laughter of one – my boss, a slightly older lady with children of her own – was wry.


Having a spouse who takes care of things at home is a Godsend on the domestic front.  It is a potent economic asset on the work front.  And it is an advantage enjoyed – even in our modern society – by vastly more men than women.  In her book, Crabb argues that working women are in an advanced, sustained, and chronically under-reported state of wife drought, and there is no sign of rain.



Facts of Our Fathers


Question 2:  Have drought conditions persisted?  Are men changing the balance between their paid and unpaid work?

Answer 2:  Small gains achieved over long timeframes appear to have plateaued.


Statistics evidencing the growth in female labour force participation have been the source of much celebration over the years.  And rightly so.  But is anyone paying much attention to the labour force status of their partners?  Are men who exit the labour force or reduce their hours of work, a similar cause for applause?


If we consider the labour force status of married men, on first flush there would appear to be some promising trends.  In January 1980, close to four out of every five married men (79 percent) were employed.  Most (76 percent) were employed in a full-time capacity, leaving only a few (three percent) who were part-time employed.  Just less than one in five (19 percent) were not in the labour force.  Only tiny numbers (two percent) of married men were unemployed.  Forty years on, in January 2020, the share of unemployed married men was unchanged.  More had exited the labour force (26 percent).  And of the 71 percent employed, more (nine percent) were working in a part-time capacity.

Labour force status of married men

Share of working aged married men, monthly

Source:  ABS (2020) Labour Force, Australia, Detailed, November.

Hooray, was my first thought when I crunched and eyeballed this data:  while the movements are nowhere near as great as those for their female counterparts, more married men must be picking up the slack on the home front.


But my glee was short-lived, as my curiosity led me to take a look at the equivalent shares for unmarried men.  I don’t need to blind you with the statistics here in order to communicate what is in plain sight:  more unmarried men are working part-time, more have exited the labour force, and more are unemployed.  That is, marital status does not by itself explain the trends towards going part-time or exiting the labour force.  Other factors, such as work-study-life balance issues and employer preferences, likely come into play.  However intriguingly, being married would appear to make a positive difference to men’s employability.  I am not sure too many married women would observe the same being true for them.

Labour force status of unmarried men

Share of working aged unmarried men, monthly

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Source:  ABS (2020) Labour Force, Australia, Detailed, November.

The relative employability of married men appears to have played out during the COVID-crisis.  In October 2020 (the most recently available data at the time of writing), their labour force status was little different from what it was at the beginning of the year.  On average, married men have not lost jobs or switched to part-time.  Unmarried men, on the other hand, have lost jobs and exited the labour force.


Of course, married men may not have children.  And unmarried men may have partners and/or children.  Making this a flawed analysis, at best.  So, let’s keep digging and address some more targeted questions.


Starting with:  Are there more stay-at-home dads?  (As an extended aside, I am quietly balking at my use of language here.  Why do we distinguish dads in this manner but when it comes to mums, we too often assume the ‘stay-at-home’ precursor?  Just as why do we talk about ‘working’ mums, but not ‘working’ dads.  But I digress.)  Back to my question, where the answer is a caveated ‘yes … but …’.  Yes – more dads are choosing to stay at home, with numbers more than doubling in just under 40 years.  But – when measured as a share of all couple families, the proportions remain tiny and have stagnated at between four and five percent since the mid-1990s.

Stay-at-home dads

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Sources:  Baxter, J (2017) Stay-at-home dads, Australian Institute of Family Studies and Baxter, J (2019) Fathers and work, Australian Institute of Family Studies.

In addition to finding that stay-at-home dads are not widespread in Australia, the author of the studies from which the above chart is derived, finds that stay-at-home-dad families are very diverse.  They include dads who are looking for work and those who are not, and mums who are working part- and full-time.  Stay-at-home dad families tend to not have a lot in common with stay-at-home-mum families.  Children tend to be older, and the mums still take on much of the caring and household work, even if the dads have increased responsibility for child care.


What puzzles me, is why has the share of stay-at-home dads stagnated? 


We see a similar pattern of stagnation when we address the next more pointed question:  Of the dads that are engaged in paid work, have more of them embraced flexible working arrangements?  Again, ‘yes ... but ….’.  Yes - the most recent (2017) data available is that a healthy 42 percent of dads with children under the age of 12 have embraced flexible arrangements.  This is up from just over a quarter (26 percent) a bit over 20 years earlier.  But - it is little different from the share 10 years earlier.  Again, it is unclear why this is so.

Work arrangements used by male parent

Proportion of families with children aged 0-11 years

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Source:  ABS (2018) Childhood Education and Care, Australia.

Note:  Components do not add to total as use may be made of more than one type of work arrangement.

Flexible working hours is by far the most attractive work arrangement, with 30 percent of dads with young children going down this track.  However, it is a proportion that has been stubbornly unchanged for 10 years.  What has been climbing is the proportion working from home: 15 percent in 2017 - more than a doubling since 1996.  Part time arrangements (the indicator I first looked at) is embraced by only five percent of dads with young children – a share that has been relatively stable over a decade.  Job sharing arrangements are intriguingly and stubbornly low at between one and two percent.


So, if I were to conclude anything from this data, it is this:  Dads with young children are preferencing work arrangements that allow them to maintain a full time workload, but give them flexibility around when and where they work.  Relatively few are reducing their hours by pursuing either part time or job sharing opportunities.  But maybe I should be weary of my language here; maybe they feel those aren’t “opportunities”.  I’ll come back to this.


Further evidence of that men are not cutting back on their hours at work is provided by the time use data collected by the Australian Institute of Family Studies.  From a paid work perspective, it appears not to matter whether their first child is newborn, 12 or any age in-between, new dads spend on average between 46 and 47 hours a week in paid employment.  A new member of the household makes some difference to the time they spend on household chores.  And, in the early years, it makes a great amount of difference to the time spent caring for their child.  In other words, dads cope by committing more of their leisure hours to household chores and caring, rather than cutting back on their hours at work.

Nature of men’s work before and after the birth of their first child

Vertical axis: average hours per week; horizontal axis: years from birth of first child

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Source:  Baxter (2019). Fathers and work: A statistical overview, Australian Institute of Family Studies.


Given this is a commentary penned as 2020 draws to a close, it would be remiss of me not to dwell a little bit longer on whether the COVID-19 restrictions have changed things.  We have already established that it has not made much of a dent in the labour force status of married men.  We know that lockdowns had the effect of sending home all who can work from home.  And that, because of gendered employment patterns, this was more often men than women.  We also know through our own experiences that the line between work and other hours has never flexed and blurred so much.  Which has brought its own set of positives and challenges.  The question that remains is: has this made any difference to the unpaid work of dads?


A survey conducted during lockdown provides part of the answer: many reported spending more quality time with their children.  Sixty-one percent of the dads surveyed reported spending more time helping their kids with learning and schoolwork.  Many reported spending more time playing with their children.  And some (16 percent) said that they played a greater role in the personal care of their children.  What the survey does not answer is whether dads also undertook more of the household chores.

The COVID-effect: dads’ quality time with their children

Share of dads reporting they spent more or less time on an activity during the pandemic

the covid effect on men and their kids.p

Source:  Baxter, J, Budinski, M, Carroll, M and Hand, K. (2020). Families in Australia Survey: Life during COVID-19 Report no. 4: Dads spend more quality time with kids. Australian Institute of Family Studies.


Free to choose


I started this piece with the borrowed provocation that women are suffering from a wife drought and there is no sign of rain.  I now want to flip things and suggest that, just as too many women are missing the economic asset called a wife, too many men are deprived of an even bigger asset: the luxury of time - for themselves, to spend with their children and to contribute on the home front more broadly.  While I have been deliberate in telling my daughters that just because women can do anything, it should not mean that they end up doing everything, I am guilty of not telling my son the same thing of men.  That is about to change.


A precept of a good friend of mine that has stuck with me throughout my adult years is that “life is not a dress rehearsal”.  Both men and women should make deliberate choices about how they spend their time, unconstrained by gendered assumptions or outdated laws and other structures.


Question 3:  In what respect do Annabel Crabb and Ruth Bader Ginsburg differ?

Answer 3:  One blamed human assumptions and not the laws, policies and other structures for discrimination against men.  The other did the opposite.


In the seminal gender rights case, referred to in the opening paragraphs of this piece, Moritz v. Commissioner, the government's response included a list of hundreds of laws that included sex-based criteria which might be at risk if the contested restriction was struck down.  The implication was that the Ginsburgs (Ruth and her husband, Martin) were arguing for "radical social change".  In her rebuttal, Ginsburg (Ruth) argues that societal roles that existed one hundred years ago, or even twenty years ago, no longer apply.  She does not ask the court to change society, but for the law to keep up with social change that has already taken place.


In Men at Work, Crabb forensically unpicks the human assumptions, laws and other structures employed by individuals, companies and countries that could be held responsible for keeping dads in the same narrow strait jacket their own dads wore.  Ultimately Crabb concludes that the true force to be reckoned with is “the extraordinary, almost tectonic power of human assumptions.”  The assumptions embedded in so many of our workplaces, our families, our governments, our communities – about men as dads and women as mums – are what continue to inform and influence, directly and indirectly, how men and women work and live.


The likely reality is that the truth lies somewhere in between.  And that neither Ginsberg nor Crabb truly believed that only one force and not the other is in play.  Their diametric emphases were most likely for effect.


Indeed, the same could be said of me.  A more honest account of Crabb’s work is that she does recognise the impact of laws, policies and other structures, but concludes that a large and too often ignored explanation is human assumptions.  In The Wife Drought she wrote:


“How can you test whether something's an assumption?  Try this: switch things around, and check how bananas everybody goes.”


And, while Ginsberg argued that the law needs to keep pace with society, it is important to bear in mind that she was also the mistress of crafting arguments that played to decision-makers in order to create comfort with the changes proposed.  Comments made elsewhere suggest she knew very well the power of challenging human assumptions.  In 2012, she beautifully illustrated Crabb’s bananas-effect:


“ … when I'm sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the supreme court]? And I say when there are nine, people are shocked.  But there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that."


Her own views on gender equality are that:


“Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation."


Which will require all - human assumptions and laws, policies and other structures - to be challenged.


And they must be challenged.  If we compare the net differences in time that men and women spend on paid and unpaid work in Australia with other OECD countries, we find that the imbalance in Australia is greater than the OECD average, and a long way short of exemplar Scandinavian countries.

Gender split in paid and unpaid work

Difference in unpaid and paid work between women and men, hours per day

gender split in paid and unpaid work.png

Source:  OECD.Stat: Gender equality in employment.

Note:   This is derived data calculated as the average hours reported by women minus the average hours reported by men based on the latest reported data for each country.

So far, I have shared with you a few of my favourite movies, books and essays.  I now wish to share with you my favourite social media blog of 2020.  It popped up in my LinkedIn feed a few of months back from Dishan Jayasekera, who I confess that I do not know from a bar of soap.  But I was immediately taken by what he had to say.  Dishan shares his experience of taking extended parental leave, and thoughts on how to support more dads to do the same.  Despite the challenges, Dishan says he’ll look back on the year on as one of the most enriching experiences of his life.  His time at home allowed him to better understand and connect with his son, and enhanced his relationship with his wife.  It has also provided him an opportunity to reflect on the role he plays within the family, and to consider how his career can best complement the father and husband he strives to be.  In other words, Dishan has made deliberate life choices.

However, they were not easy choices.  They highlighted the reality and persistence of social norms that made his decision as a male partner to take extended leave somewhat unusual. 


While the more gender-neutral language is now used – primary and secondary leave in place of maternal and paternal leave - the norm of mum taking the former and dad taking the latter persists.

Non-public sector employees using primary or secondary parental leave

Rate per 100 persons in 2017-18

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Source:  ABS (2020) Gender Indicators, Australia, December..

When sharing the reasoning behind his decision to take primary leave, Dishan honestly admits that if it weren’t for his wife’s desire to return to work during a critical period of her organisation’s growth, he doubts he would have given it much thought.  Not because he didn’t want to, but because he had so few male role-models to look up to who had done the same thing.  It just wasn’t part of his consciousness as something that he might end up doing.  Good on you, Dishan, I applaud you for putting yourself out there as a role model.  But I also 100 percent take your point that there should be nothing remarkable about your decision.


The other interesting reflection Dishan shares in his blog is the nervousness he’d felt about having the conversation with his boss.  Despite there being a generous parental leave policy in place for either mums or dads, he still feared the potential stigma associated with taking extended parental leave as a father.  His primary concern was that he would be perceived as being less committed to his work, and that this would limit his career aspirations.  While Dishan’s fears turned out to be unfounded, how many other dads are holding themselves back due to similar concerns?


For other households, it is not only assumptions and norms that are holding them back, it is the law.  Do not be fooled by the more gender neutral language now used, it merely disguises a persistent gender bias.  An episode of ABC’s Q&A panel aired in May 2021, provided a stark real life illustration of the perversity of the law in practice.  A lady from the audience shared that two weeks following the birth of her twins she returned to work and her husband stayed at home with them.  This was a rationale economic choice as she was the household’s main breadwinner.  However, under Centerlink’s paid parental leave scheme her husband is not recognised as the primary caregiver and could not claim it.  The provisions rely on the birth mother claiming the entitlement and then, provided eligibility criteria are met, transferring it to the father, recognising him as the primary caregiver.    They did not meet the eligibility criteria and, therefore, did not qualify for any payments.  Had their roles been reversed and the husband earned her income and she his and she stayed at home with the twins then they would have been automatically eligible.  They asked that they be reconsidered as an ‘exceptional circumstance’ only to be told that it was her choice to return to work and, therefore, was not ‘exceptional’.


Of course her circumstance was not ‘exceptional’.  Or at least it shouldn’t be.  It should be the norm, just as mothers who choose to stay at home is the norm.  And, as such, they should be no less entitled. 


Parental leave is only one of many examples that evidence men’s constrained choices.  Another is ‘flexism’ – discrimination against flexible workers, especially men.  Which may go a long way towards explaining why job sharing arrangements are pursued by so few men. 


The lady who shared her story on Q&A asked the panel whether she thought the parental leave provisions reflect an underlying gender bias.  The answer is: obviously!  It is inexplicable that they continue to persist in ‘modern’ Australia. 


The same goes to the other laws, social structures, norms and attitudes that are holding back the choices of men.  Now is not the time for change.  That was decades ago.  As we emerge towards a ‘new COVID-normal’, following a period where many dads have experienced the forced luxury of time with their children, now is the time for catch up - to make this an unconstrained choice irrespective of gender.

Mary Clarke


DXP Consulting

M: +61 401 088 571


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