Paid parental leave & 'primary' carer battles: a USA - Australia comparison

in Research , Tagged Australia, Maternity leave, OECD, Parental leave, United States, Paternity leave, Gender norms.
  • Deborah Widiss

    Deborah Widiss

    Deborah Widiss is a Professor of Law at the Indiana University School of Law and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Melbourne Law School. She received a Fulbright Senior Scholar grant to conduct research on Australia's paid parental leave policy and other legal supports for employees with family responsibilities.


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Korea and Japan win hands down when it comes to Fathers' parental leave entitlements across OECD nations. Australia is among the worst. And the United States is the worst. That said, there are a few things Australia can learn from the US when it comes to parental leave provisions. Particularly around the issue of 'primary carer' preference. 

While most nations recognise the importance of paid parental leave, few agree on the length of leave, or which parent is most entitled to it. And it will come as no surprise to BroadAgenda readers to learn that the research shows caring for children is still largely done by women. But how much of that 'choice' is cultural and how much is the result of workplace circumstances and organisational structures?

Today on BroadAgenda, Professor Deborah Widiss discusses her research on paid parental leave comparing Australia and the United States. While both countries have been poor performers on PPL policy, some of the comparative results are quite surprising. Take a look below.

Until 2011, Australia and the United States shared the (unfortunate) distinction of being the only OECD member countries that failed to guarantee employees paid time off after the birth of a child. Now, Australia’s paid parental leave scheme has been in place for several years. I came to Australia from the U.S. to learn how it’s working and bring ideas home, but in talking with stakeholders here, I’ve realised that it’s a two-way conversation. In Australia, as highlighted in the recent report by Workplace Gender Equality Agency, only a tiny percentage of publicly-funded parental leave benefits go to men. In some states in the U.S., by contrast, men account for almost 40% of claims.

In Australia, only a tiny percentage of publicly-funded parental leave benefits go to men

It is not surprising that few men claim Australia’s government-provided parental leave pay. The law provides 18 weeks of benefits to a baby’s 'primary carer', and it specifies that the birth mother is the initial “primary carer”; she can transfer benefits, but such transfers are extremely rare. Fathers primarily receive benefits under a separate provision that provides two weeks of 'dad and partner pay' (DAPP).

To the extent private companies offer paid parental leave, most follow the same structure, providing far more time to 'primary carers' (on average, 10 weeks) than 'secondary carers' (on average, just 7 days). Although nominally gender neutral, 95% of primary carer leave is accessed by women, and 95% of secondary carer leave is accessed by men.

OECD fathers

Policies in the U.S. are quite different. Although the U.S. lacks a national program, there are currently five U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, that guarantee paid parental leave, as part of a more general 'family' leave. Rather than designating one parent as the 'primary' carer and the other as 'secondary', the U.S. laws provide each parent an independent right to paid leave to 'bond' with a new baby. Dads get just as much time as moms. Parents can choose to take leave at the same time or stagger their leaves, and in most states, leave can be taken on a part-time basis. Private companies in the U.S. also typically provide mothers and fathers equal amounts of parental leave.

The length of leave under the U.S. laws, particularly the older ones, is extremely short. Some provide just four or six weeks to each parent, with an additional period of benefits that is available to birth mothers during the time that they are physically recovering from child birth. New laws in New York and Washington, however, will provide each parent 12 weeks. If both parents use their full allotment, and moms take the extra time allowed for medical recovery, it could add up to seven or eight months of paid leave.

That’s a big “if.” In most countries, men are far less likely than women to take parental leave. To some extent, that’s true in the U.S., too. However, men’s leave-taking rates are steadily rising. In 2004, when California’s program began, just 17% of the bonding claims were made by men. Now that has more than doubled. Rhode Island’s law is newer, and there too, men make up almost 40% of parental leave claims. In both states, many men take the full amount of time permitted.

OECD maternity leave

Number of weeks of maternity leave for which a pregnant woman is entitled to leave her job before and just after a child-birth. Source:

Why are new fathers in the U.S. more likely to access parental leave benefits? In part, it’s probably because new moms typically take far less time off, with many returning to work after just three months. Also, in the U.S., the government programs provide workers 60-90% of their usual salary (up to a cap), whereas in Australia, parental leave benefits are paid at the minimum wage.

Norms around caretaking are also arguably less gendered in the U.S. 

Norms around caretaking are also arguably less gendered in the U.S. When polled, 71% of Americans say babies should have “equal time” to bond with both parents. This has been encouraged by the state agencies that implement the government laws. Their websites feature pictures of men with their babies, clearly signalling that dads are permitted—and indeed encouraged—to claim benefits.

Government and private companies in Australia could likewise consider how their messaging can support men’s use. A bigger change would be to replace the current structure, which requires designating one parent as the primary carer (and it’s no surprise that’s usually the mother), with benefits simply premised on being a new parent. Raising the pay rate and permitting part-time leave might also raise men’s leave-taking rates.

Giving new parents time off work should be a national priority

And what can the U.S. learn from Australia? Well, first, and most obviously, that it should be a national priority to give new parents time off work, not something that depends on what state you happen to live in. The U.S. could consider whether single mothers should receive more time if they do not have a partner to share leave with. And U.S. companies should follow the Australian example and provide more flexibility in terms of when, how, and where work is performed—not only in the weeks and months after a new baby is born, but through the years as those babies grow up.

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  • Tina Sicklen 02/06/2018 10:57am (2 years ago)

    I was shocked though not surprised how Australia lags behind. The gender differentiation is very concerning too. Excellent, timely research.

  • Rebecca Mc 01/06/2018 3:03pm (2 years ago)

    I think what is missing in Australia is options. Having a general pool of 'family' leave as per the US example is a far better option than having to designate primary and secondary carer roles. Advances in work place flexibility for women in Australia are fantastic, but women are often forced into the 'flexibility trap' where they are assigned as primary caregiver during maternity leave, while the men progress in their career trying to maintain family income. Women are then far more likely to be the one in the family taking on part time work as the 'natural progression' from maternity leave (and not furthering their career at the same rate as their partner). The current system of career advancement is geared towards males being able to commit more time to their career. What results is a lack of diversity in leadership positions and women having less superannuation to fall back on in the end.

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