Apologies for the confusing hashtag. We recently sat down with Mr Nigel Oram, Barrister of Key Chambers (previously, Principal Solicitor of ACT Government Solicitor) as part of the #WomenLawyersoftheACT series to chat about his views on parenthood and gender equality.
You are a father to two children. How long were you on leave from work following the birth of your two daughters?
I took 23 weeks off after the birth of each of my two daughters; 4 weeks off initially, and then a further period when I became the primary carer when the girls were 5 months old.
What were some of the obstacles you faced in securing paternity leave and flexible working arrangements?
One of the attractions of working for the ACT Government Solicitor was having access to paid parental leave, and flexible working arrangements.
I was a bit concerned, however, about how my leave application would be received, given that it is reasonably unusual for the father to take primary carer leave. While a little surprised, much to their credit, the ACT Government Solicitor supported me taking leave. I have heard stories from fathers in the legal profession who have had very different experiences taking relatively short periods of leave after the birth of their children (1 to 2 weeks).
My workplace was also supportive of me returning to work on a part-time basis. Like all working professionals, I have struggled with workloads and have ended up working considerably more than a full-time load within part-time hours. Again, however, much to the credit of the ACT Government Solicitor, I was able to work full-time flexibly, over nights and weekends. This is an arrangement that has suited both me and my workplace.
Have you always felt strongly about taking time out of work to care for your children? What factors influenced your decision?
I had and do have strong feelings about taking time out of work to care for my children in the first year of their lives.
I always wanted children. The most contented moments of my life have been spending days with my children and, before that, my nieces.
I want to be a significant part of my children’s lives and a truly equal parent. I think it is very difficult to be an equal parent unless you have had the opportunity to be the primary caregiver, as the other partner will define routines and rituals, and children will naturally look to that person for affection and support. However, while it is something I always wanted to do, as a career-focused person I found the idea terrifying.
Having children does have a significant impact on your career. After an extended period of leave, office dynamics change, and those people who once depended on you may no longer do so. Further, when you do return, your attention is divided between home and work. Employers are aware of this. I know of women who have been asked in job interviews when they expect to start a family. As a man, it is inconceivable that I would be asked the same question. Even where the discrimination is not so overt, it will be a question in the back of many employers' minds.
I think it is important to acknowledge the career impact, as this is the almost invariable consequence for women who choose to start a family. My wife is in many ways more accomplished and successful than me. It should not be presumed that she will compromise her career to give our children a solid and supportive home-life. I do not think that there can be gender equality until both parents are expected, or even required, to take equal time off after the birth of their children.
Have you come across individuals who have been taken aback by your choice in taking time out of employment OR curious in how you and your partner juggle your work and caring responsibilities? What are some of the common questions asked?
Generally, people are very supportive. For example, I was surprised and appreciative that my parents group accepted me as an equal member – given that these groups provide significant support for women who are experiencing a whole range of issues in early motherhood.
I have to say that the only people who have been horrified that my wife and I split the primary caregiver role were mothers who would not have wanted to give up that early period in their babies’ lives. I do understand these feelings. It is a very special time and you do create a strong bond with your baby in these early days. I am ashamed to say that it filled me with warmth to have my children run past their mother to me when they needed affection and support. I am very appreciative that my wife was willing to split this time with me. I do think, however, that until our parental leave provisions are generous enough to support both parents taking extended leave, achieving gender equality requires sacrifices on both sides. Ultimately, however, it is a decision for all couples based on both personal and practical factors.
Do you think that in today’s society, there is still a preoccupation with masculinity and caregiving?
I have to say that in my group of friends and acquaintances, men generally want to be seen as active and loving fathers.
Despite this desire, I think that it is still so ingrained that children are the primary responsibility of mothers; a good and active father ‘helps out’ the mother. I think that part of this is due to fathers not having the earlier caregiver role, as the mother becomes the expert in how to look after the child and the father is waiting to be told, asking for advice, or even seeking permission as to how to look after their children. One thing my wife and I have discussed is that, as parents, it is important that each of us is entitled to parent even if we get things wrongs or do things is a sub-optimal way.
In your opinion, how can we disrupt gender norms around caregiving more generally?
There are still many areas of life where discrimination is the norm. It is so engrained that, even when trying, you still assume that certain things are or will be.
For example, I had a strong view that when we got married, my wife and I should have the same name - as we were starting our own family. I was named after my grandfather and his great uncle. Both these men had achieved significant things, and my name gave me a strong sense of identify that supported me through my earlier life and through difficult times. My wife also had a strong affinity to her family name. I was working on encouraging my wife to take my name, when I had a conversation with a friend who is a very successful female scientist. She asked me why it had to be my wife that gave up her name. It is an obvious question with an obvious answer, however, it illustrates how ingrained gender inequality is even among the well-intentioned. Our family is now proud to take on my wife's family name.
I think it is important that we have the opportunity to be equal parents from the beginning of our children’s lives. This is an important step to addressing just one of many gender presumptions.