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How we widened the gender pay gap

One of our proudest moments at My Food Bag occurred in 2016 when we introduced our parental leave scheme.  At the time, it was one of the most generous parental leave schemes in New Zealand. We gave parents the chance to stay at home with their newborn for an additional 18 weeks at full pay or enabled their partner to spend that time at home, with the incentive that we’d pay them an additional 60% on top of their salary for that same period.  We wanted to make it easier for our team to take time off. To reduce some of the financial pressure of having a baby and simply to say “we support you”.

The right thought, the wrong execution.  Hindsight is a beautiful thing! What we were trying to do was empower our people to spend more time with their young family, but instead, we likely perpetuated New Zealand’s gender pay gap.  It’s a big call to say that, after having the programme ‘in market’ for almost 4 years, however only around 10% of our eligible male team members decided to stay home, opting instead to give the leave to their partner.

In Sweden, both mums and dads take an almost equal amount parental leave.  Most of my friends, mothers and fathers, have both taken time off to be with their child.  The most common solution has been to share the 480 days of paid parental leave (at up to 80% of their salary) that they’re allocated.  We have a diverse group of friends – from engineers to doctors, architects to chefs, designers, creatives, you name it.  Somehow, they all managed to take this time out of their career to care for their child:  meaning, it’s not just a woman that has a gap in their career but a man too. When an employer is looking to hire a young, talented individual, they no longer only look at the woman as being at “risk” of staying at home with a future child – the risk is now equal.

So, if we can resolve the issue by simply ensuring that men and women take equal leave at the start, how does that fit within the rest of the new family vs work juggle?  Once we return to work, how do we manage having children and a career from that point onwards?  Spurred on by one of our ex-team members, Hannah, we watched the Netflix series Explained which talks about the gender pay gap.  The one thing that stands out in that debate is the utter lack of conversation around the fact that, as with most parents I know, men and women alike want to be there for their child.

Moreover, isn’t the point of having a child to be a part of their life?  Getting to know them, being there for them, helping to shape them, provide support to them; simply put to raise them.  In our view, there’s a major disconnect here. 

The other morning, as we were struggling to get ourselves and the kids organised enough to get out the door in the pouring rain, James stopped me and said, “imagine just one of us doing this”.  In that moment, I actually stopped and sent a mental hug to every mum (and dad) that morning battling rain jackets, lathering kids in sunblock (for our international readers – it’s just how we live here in New Zealand!) and getting out the door in time. But, here’s my question – why is it so hard? Why can’t both mum and dad be there at 8 am to lather kids in sunblock and take them off to school?   

To use the old adage, why are we trying to fit a square peg into a round hole?  Where do these unrealistic expectations of working parents come from?  Don’t we – as a nation – have a massive problem with mental health, anxiety and feelings of stress?  Don’t answer that, it’s not up for debate.  All this undue pressure is doing nothing to alleviate the problems we face, collectively, as a workforce (employers and employees alike).

Second to that — why are we rushing in the manner we are?  Why is that 8:30am meeting so important when we live in such an amazingly connected world, where meetings and conversations can and do happen from anywhere?

So, the next time we introduce a parental leave scheme in Project XYZ it will be a “use or loose” policy where we encourage the parent working for us to ensure they take that time with their family. To improve pay equity rather than perpetuate the gap. Secondly – and equally as important – we will continue to keep the well-being of our team and their families at the heart of what we do and how we behave.  Hear my war cry, because this is it! We won’t book 8 am or 5 pm meetings unless the house is literally on fire. We will encourage flexible, happy and efficient working styles and ensure that our team feel successful not just at work, but at home too. 

A favourite quote of mine is “we work to live, not live to work”.  You’d be surprised at how many eyebrows are raised in disagreement at this statement, but for us, it’s a guiding principle for how we conduct ourselves as leaders.