Annual Report 2005‚Äď06

Parental leave in Australia

By Gillian Whitehouse, University of Queensland

The Parental Leave in Australia Survey was distributed to the B cohort as part of the Wave 1.5 mail out. The questionnaire was designed as part of an Australian Research Council funded project2 to fill a considerable statistical gap in Australia on the utilisation and efficacy of parental leave provisions. It provides details on the employment status of parents prior to the birth of their child, eligibility for the entitlement to unpaid parental leave under federal legislation, the uptake of different types of leave, return to work experiences and the choices and preferences of the parents of young children balancing work and caring responsibilities. The goal of the survey is to extend the range and quality of information available on parental leave in Australia.

Some initial findings from the Wave 1.5 questions are presented below. They cover issues of employment status prior to the birth, eligibility for unpaid parental leave and the combinations of leave arrangements most commonly taken by mothers and fathers.

Preliminary estimates from the survey indicate that around 69 per cent of B cohort mothers were in paid employment during their pregnancy and that, of the 31 per cent who were not in paid work, the majority were looking after their families full-time (see Table 4). Table 4 also shows that of those mothers in paid employment, 72 per cent were employees who had worked for the same employer for the 12 months prior to the birth. As this is the primary criterion for eligibility for the statutory provision for 52 weeks unpaid parental leave, this can be taken as a preliminary estimate of eligibility among mothers working during their pregnancy, although some adjustment may be necessary once the prevalence of other factors potentially affecting eligibility have been assessed.

Table 4. Employment status of parents in the 12 months prior to the birth of a child (weighted)
  Mothers Fathers
(% of total) (% of employed) (% of total) (% of employed)
Employed 69   95  
Employee, with same employer for 12 months 50 72 62 65
Employee for 12 months, but not with same employer 3 4 9 9
Employee, but not for the full 12 months 9 13 5 5
Self employed 7 11 19 20
Not in paid employment 31   4  
At home to look after family 27   1  
Not in paid work for other reasons 4   3  
Total 100 100 100 100

Among fathers of the study children, around 95 per cent were in paid employment in the 12 months prior to the birth, although a considerably higher proportion of fathers, compared with mothers, were in self-employment (19 compared with 7 per cent) (see Table 4). Of those fathers who were in paid employment, Table 4 shows that 65 per cent were employees who worked for the same employer over the 12 month period, thus meeting the basic eligibility criterion for access to up to 52 weeks unpaid parental leave if they take on the role of primary carer of the child. Again, this provides a preliminary estimate of eligibility for this form of leave.

The survey data show a complex pattern of leave-taking among parents. Among mothers, the most prevalent arrangements were combinations of different forms of paid and unpaid leave. As Table 5 shows, among mothers employed in the 12 months prior to the birth of the study child, just 4 per cent took paid maternity leave only, and in total only around 11 per cent took paid forms of leave only (forms of paid leave other than maternity leave include annual, sick and long service leave). A larger percentage (around 17 per cent) took unpaid maternity leave only, but the most common arrangements were combinations of paid and unpaid leave, particularly combinations that included leave other than formally designated maternity/parental leave. Twenty-nine percent of employed mothers fell into this latter category. There were 26 per cent of mothers who took no leave at all. Around 60 per cent of this group indicated that the reason they took no leave was because they had left employment (they had chosen to leave, been dismissed or retrenched, or their contract had expired) and another 16 per cent did not take leave because they were self-employed.

It was among those taking combinations of paid and unpaid leave that the longest average durations of leave were recorded - 50 weeks on average for mothers combining paid and unpaid maternity/parental leave, and 43 weeks on average for those taking combinations of paid and unpaid leave that were not limited to leave designated as maternity or parental leave.

Table 5. Mothers employed in the 12 months prior to the birth of their child: combinations of leave types and average duration of leave (unweighted)
  % of employed
mothers
Mean duration
of leave (weeks)
Paid leave only 11  
Paid maternity leave only 4 17
Paid maternity and other paid leave 5 25
Other paid leave only 2 9
Unpaid leave only 24  
Unpaid maternity/parental leave only 17 37
Unpaid maternity/parental and/or other unpaid leave 7 33
Paid and unpaid leave 38  
Paid and unpaid maternity/parental leave only 9 50
All other combinations of paid and unpaid leave 29 43
No leave 26  

The pattern of leave taking for fathers was quite different. Unsurprisingly, fathers took much shorter periods of leave than mothers - the overall average duration of leave taken by fathers was 14 days, while for mothers the overall average duration of leave taken was 38 weeks. In addition, fathers were much more likely than mothers to take paid leave only, particularly forms of paid leave other than paternity or parental leave. As Table 6 shows, 40 per cent of employed fathers fell into this latter category. A small proportion of fathers accessed unpaid leave only (13 per cent overall), and very few took combinations of paid and unpaid leave (3 per cent). However, it was among this 'combinations' group that the average duration of leave was longest (29 days). Among the 25 per cent of employed fathers taking no leave, the most common reason given for not taking leave was self-employment (47 per cent of this group), but for over onethird of this group the main reason given was that their partner was at home full-time.

Table 6. Fathers employed in the 12 months prior to the birth of their child: combinations of leave types and average duration of leave (unweighted)
  % of employed
fathers
Mean duration
of leave (days)
Paid leave only 60  
Paid paternity leave only 10 8
Paid paternity and other paid leave 10 20
Other paid leave only 40 13
Unpaid leave only 13  
Unpaid paternity/parental leave only 5 12
Unpaid paternity/parental and/or other unpaid leave 8 16
Paid and unpaid leave 3 29
No leave 25  

While these are preliminary statistics, they indicate the capacity of these survey data to extend significantly what is known about the use of parental leave in Australia. Other indicators that have been available, such as estimates of the proportion of workplaces or organisations at which parental leave is provided, the incidence of provisions in awards and agreements, and general employee surveys that provide perceptions of access, are limited in important ways. For example: data on small business provisions are not available; variations in access within organisations cannot be assessed; provisions in industrial agreements cannot be used to determine coverage across the labour market; and information collected directly from employees is complicated by the possibility that respondents will be poorly informed about their entitlements, or confused about whether to answer in terms of general availability or what is relevant to them. More fundamentally, none of these sources sheds light on the actual use of parental leave or the experiences of users.

The data obtained through The Parental Leave in Australia Survey provide a wide range of analytical possibilities, including investigation of the factors that influence leavetaking arrangements, parents' perceptions of their leave experiences, return to work patterns and post-birth working experiences. Moreover, the potential for analysis across different waves of Growing Up in Australia means that links between issues such as leave taking and child/family wellbeing can be investigated and tracked in the future.

  1. Linkage Project LP0453613, Parental leave in Australia: Access, utilisation and efficacy, Chief Investigators Gillian Whitehouse (University of Queensland), Marian Baird (University of Sydney), postdoctoral fellow Chris Diamond (University of Queensland). [back]

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