NZ’s parental leave system is set up to fail

The current NZ parental leave system is set up to fail.

Birth mums tend to take the primary carer’s (statutory) paid six months because they are recovering from birth, they are nursing, they are bonding with the baby they have carried for nine months, etc.

And with parental paid leave a significant income drop for most – at companies who don’t top up – it’s common sense for the highest paid partner to keep earning their full salary – still typically the man (in a hetero relationship).

Most of my new dad friends can’t even afford to use the two weeks of partner’s unpaid leave they get (especially as their family unit has just taken a big income drop) so use their annual leave instead. 

For many companies it’s not feasible for a guy to take 1-3 months’ of leave – it’s really hard/impossible to get like-for-like quality cover for this length of time.

That’s why, in New Zealand, only 1% of paid parental leave is taken by men.

When parental leave is truly equal…

Companies won’t be more reluctant to hire women of a certain age than they are men. Who would prefer to hire a woman of childbearing age, compared to a man of the same age, when you know she’s 49 times more likely to go on extended leave – or actually leave?

When women are tasked with taking 99% of the leave, it impacts the length of time we work, our pension contributions, our ability to invest and our wealth, the experience we have, how up-to-date our work knowledge is, and our professional networks.

Women would have the same opportunity as men to skyrocket their careers – if that’s what they choose to focus on. In a study of Australian CEOs, 100% of the male CEOs interviewed had a stay-at-home spouse. By contrast, 0% of the female CEOs’ spouses were full-time homemakers. Every single one of the women CEOs with children identified as the primary care giver.

Women’s burnout levels will improve – taking on the bulk of work in the home alongside paid work is bloody hard.

When parents spend equal time with their babies, they won’t later depend on their Mum when they’re feeling sad or sick, so time out of work for caregiving will be shared more equally throughout the child’s life.

Parents’ relationships will improve (according to 90% of new dads taking at least 2 months of leave, in a McKinsey report).

And, super importantly, men will have an equal opportunity to parent their own child!

We need:

1. Longer leave for all (not just the already well-paid working at big corporates), so the second parent has a chance to use it too.

2. It needs to be better paid, so families can afford to use it.

3. And there needs to be a period of use-it-or-lose-it time for the second parent, to encourage it and ensure they get this important bonding time too.


Unfortunately, for some reason I can’t fathom, not that many people seem to care enough about this to actually do anything. A petition I set up a while back died quietly, and a new one set up three months ago only has 145 signatures at the time of writing. Hardly the 24,000 it took in 1893 to get (non-Maori) women the vote in New Zealand.

I haven’t given up talking about this topic, but I am weary of being the rallying cry that nobody listens to. If you want to do anything about this broken system to make our society better for your friends and family, you could write to your MP or sign a petition. Finally, make an effort to refer to it as “parental leave” rather than “maternity leave”; small actions like the language we use day-to-day shape people’s expectations and norms.

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