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The business value of parental leave policies

The legal industry leads the country in terms of parental leave – and as these firms have found, initiatives like these are not only valuable for working parents, but they also result in improved culture, staff retention and work/life balance.

user iconLauren Croft 21 August 2023 Big Law
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New research from the University of South Australia’s Centre for Workplace Excellence recently found that new parents were being given fewer opportunities to advance their careers when returning from parental leave.

As reported by the ABC, research fellow Rachael Potter surveyed approximately 600 parents across Australia for the study, which revealed that new parents experienced discrimination in the workplace while pregnant, on parental leave, and upon returning to their workplace.

Following this research, Lawyers Weekly spoke to two BigLaw firms about the importance of parental leave policies – as well as how initiatives can help drive gender equality and retain working parents.

 
 

Many law firms across the country have implemented paid parental leave policies of at least 18 weeks, and the legal industry as a whole is taking the lead across the country “when it comes to supporting their people throughout all facets of their working life”, Gadens head of people and development Lisa Eskander said.

“We embrace the differences that each of our people brings, and we know that part-time staff and working parents aren’t less committed or less driven. In today’s fast-paced work environment, the dedication of working parents and part-time staff shines through. Despite the challenges they face in balancing responsibilities, these individuals consistently demonstrate commitment to their jobs,” she explained.

“Exemplifying how dedication transcends traditional work norms, working parents expertly manage the demands of both their careers and families, showcasing their exceptional time management skills. Part-time staff, who are often working parents, contribute with enthusiasm and innovative thinking, despite working fewer hours. Their commitment is evident in their strong decision-making skills, ability to meet deadlines and make valuable contributions to their teams.

“At Gadens, over the last three years, we have seen an increasing percentage of our staff adopting parental leave be promoted either shortly before, promoted while on parental leave, or being promoted shortly after returning from parental leave. This increasing trend highlights the diverse strengths and commitments that each individual brings to the table.”

In October last year, Gadens amended its parental leave policy to include 30 weeks of paid parental leave for all permanent staff, regardless of whether parents were the primary or secondary caregiver and how long they had been at the firm.

This leave can be taken at full pay for 30 weeks, half pay for 60 weeks, as individual days, in blocks, or the full benefit at once, with additional support and paid leave for those undergoing fertility treatment or surrogacy and pregnancy loss. For new parents, the firm provides individual coaching, staggered return to work, and temporary budget relief for fee earners.

“Another key component of our policy that directly addresses the impact extended leave has on superannuation is how we pay superannuation – we make contributions for the first 52 weeks of both paid and unpaid leave, at full-time equivalent, regardless of a person’s working patterns.

“Strong parental leave policies play a vital role in promoting gender equality and closing the gender pay gap by providing equal career opportunities, reducing career penalties for women, encouraging shared parenting, fostering an inclusive work culture and addressing traditional gender roles and stereotypes surrounding parenting and caregiving responsibilities. When both men and women have access to parental leave and are encouraged to take an active role in childcare, it paves the way for greater gender equality in the workforce and contributes to building a more equitable and progressive society,” Ms Eskander added.

“An organisation’s approach to parental leave has the ability to impact gender equality in the workplace, the gender pay gap and superannuation for men and women. When parental leave disproportionately affects one gender, typically women, it perpetuates traditional gender roles, positioning women as primary caregivers and men as primary breadwinners. This imbalance contributes to career interruptions, impacts earning potential, and ultimately contributes to the gender pay gap. By ensuring parental leave is equitable for both men and women, we take a crucial step towards addressing these issues.”

Ashurst was the first global law firm to announce a 26-week paid parental leave scheme back in July 2021, which also includes pregnancy loss provisions that comprise two weeks of paid leave for anyone who suffers a pregnancy loss, whether it happens directly to them, their partner or their surrogate mother, plus an additional five days for related appointments.

Since implementing this gender-neutral policy, said Ashurst head of Australia Lea Constantine, the firm has seen an uptick in men, in particular, taking parental leave, something she said was “great to see, as it helps destigmatise parental leave for women”.

“We know that direct and indirect discrimination against working parents is one of a number of interconnected reasons why fewer women make it to the top in the legal profession. As a firm, we are committed to creating a workplace that improves equality and representation for women as well as other underrepresented minorities. Ensuring we support working parents is an important part of that goal.

“However, parental leave is only one part of our efforts to address the gender pay gap and promote gender equity at senior levels of the firm. When new parents return to work after a period of parental leave, we offer a range of assistance to help them balance their careers with caring responsibilities,” she opined.

“We provide a suite of other measures to help new parents manage their careers, including through a support portal, specialised coaching, and a peer network. We also host a parents and carers support platform, Circle In, which offers assistance to staff who are thinking about starting a family, expecting their first child, expanding their family or taking on caring responsibilities for sick or elderly family members.”

Having a progressive parental leave policy can also mean increased employee retention, engagement, talent attraction and work/life balance, which Ms Eskander said results in a positive and inclusive work culture.

“Organisations that put people at the centre tend to better retain talented people and foster higher levels of engagement. When people feel supported and valued, especially during significant life events like growing a family, they are more likely to stay committed to their organisation. In today’s competitive job market, providing supportive parental leave can be a key differentiator for people.

“Prospective employees, particularly Millennials and younger generations, often prioritise work environments that foster work/life balance and family-friendly policies.

“Being a parent is demanding, and without sufficient flexibility and support, parents may face increased stress and burnout. A well-designed parental leave policy promotes the mental health and wellbeing of parents, which ultimately benefits both them and their employers,” she added.

“We believe that an organisation that is known for supporting parents throughout their careers contributes to a positive employer brand, attracting talent, clients and relationships. Ultimately, the support provided to parents throughout their careers leads to long-term business success.”

Managers also play a “crucial role” in the parental leave process, Ms Eskander emphasised.

“When employees return from parental leave, their return isn’t just about their onboarding experience; rather, it is about bespoke support from within their work environment. It’s important to understand what support the returning parent needs and how we can provide a smooth transition,” she said.

“Proper training and awareness programs for managers are essential to ensure they understand the importance of parental leave and provide appropriate support to their team members. Encouraging open and non-judgmental conversations with managers allows employees to discuss their leave plans, work expectations, and concerns without hesitation.”

However, this needs to be implemented from the early stages of lawyers’ careers, Mc Constantine added.

“It is important for the entire legal profession to pay particular attention to the career needs of women at senior associate level, which is the point at which many take time out of the workforce to have children. There are many talented parents who make brilliant lawyers, and we want to make sure we provide career pathways for them. This includes through ensuring there are opportunities and support systems in place so that working parents who have the ability and drive are encouraged to pursue promotion,” she said.

“We want to help our people be the best lawyers they can be, and that includes creating an environment where parents can balance their work and home responsibilities. We know historically that many women have seen their careers suffer after taking time out of the workforce to have children, and we are striving to ensure we foster an environment where all our staff can thrive.”