The growing number of breadwinner mothers and stay-at-home fathers has exposed an inequality at the heart of the government’s paid parental leave scheme.
Eligibility for the government’s 18-week Parental Leave Pay is tied to the birth mother’s income, except in cases of adoption and fostering.
If the birth mother earns less than $150,000, she can access the payment regardless of how much her partner earns.
But if the birth mother earns more than $150,000, the family will never qualify for Parental Leave Pay, even if her partner earns under the cap.
“Parental Leave Pay is primarily intended to help support mothers to take time out of the workforce to care for their newborn or recently adopted child, to enhance the health and development of the child and to allow time for the mother to recover from the child’s birth,” the spokesperson said.
Parents at Work chief executive Emma Walsh said it was an “unintended consequence” because when the scheme was designed 10 years ago the notion of stay-at-home fathers were “an afterthought”.
“There should be an equal right to an equal benefit in paid parental leave and there should be the ability to share this,” Ms Walsh said. “In other OECD nations, it's common for there to be a provision that is for mothers, a provision that is for fathers and a separate provision that they can share.”
It is a situation that has left new mother Anastasia Smietanka, 31, “infuriated” by the gender inequality.
As a barrister in Melbourne she earns over the $150,000 threshold, while her partner Nick Lovelock, 33, earns half her salary as a management consultant. If the roles were reversed, Ms Smietanka would qualify for the payment.
“I was quite outraged that I was being penalised as someone that chose to go back to work and the government just assumed or expected that families would have a father that goes back to work and the mother wouldn't,” Ms Smietanka said. “I like to work more, I wanted to go back after six weeks and Nick wanted to stay at home.”
Since Ms Smietanka is self-employed, she had no access to corporate maternity leave even if she had wanted to stay home. Fortunately Mr Lovelock’s employer had a generous parental leave scheme of 16 weeks’ full pay to any parent, regardless of gender.
“We are incredibly lucky that Nick works with a company that is so progressive and forward thinking … but most men only get two weeks leave,” Ms Smietanka said. “We can afford it but other people can’t.”
Mr Lovelock, who will go back to work part time next month, said the situation “made no sense”.
“The idea that you've had some kind of artificial rule that says because the female earns that much we can't get the benefit whereas if the roles were reversed we could, it just seems silly to me,” Mr Lovelock said. “The experience that we've had parenting for the last four and a half months, gender hasn't made any difference at all.”
Ms Smietanka did not accept the department’s explanation that the leave should mainly benefit women, since six weeks was the standard recovery time from childbirth and not everyone could or wanted to breastfeed. She noted eligibility for Child Care Subsidy was based on joint income. “There’s no consistency.”