Navigating Parental Leave: Talking with Emma Walsh of Parents At Work

Today, we have the pleasure of chatting with Emma Walsh, the CEO of Parents At Work. Emma has dedicated her career to advocating for working families, and she brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to the table.

With the recent release of the 2024 National Working Families Survey, Emma has some valuable insights to share about the challenges and opportunities facing parents today.

We’ll be diving into how the cost-of-living crisis is impacting decisions around parental leave, and the ongoing structural barriers that make it tough for families to balance work and care responsibilities. Emma will also share some of the creative solutions and policies that forward-thinking employers are adopting to better support their staff.

From flexible work arrangements to innovative parental leave policies, Emma’s experience and expertise are sure to provide some practical advice and inspiration. Whether you’re a working parent, an employer, or just interested in the topic, you won’t want to miss this conversation. 

Emma, the 2024 National Working Families Survey highlights the growing impact of the cost-of-living crisis on working parents. Can you share more about how this financial pressure is affecting families’ decisions regarding parental leave?

Australian families have struggled for a long time to strike the balance between work and care commitments and it’s evident from our 2019 to 2024 comparison data that this is growing at a pace and is only likely to accelerate further over the next decade with the cost of living pressures. 

Compared to other OECD nations Australia has under-funded, unequal parental leave practices, and precarious access to flexible work in workplaces making it very difficult for families to share caring responsibilities without a detrimental impact on their career, financial and family wellbeing outcomes. 

The 2024 National Working Families Survey showed that 41% of parents would like to take longer parental leave and 38% would like greater access to childcare. The most common reason cited for not taking longer leave was financial reasons, which was reported by 69 per cent of women, and 38 percent of men.

The most common reason cited by men for taking too short a parental leave period was that they were not eligible for longer paid parental leave based on their company policy ~ more than half (51 per cent) of men and 21 percent of women.

It’s also evident that the cost of childcare is inhibitive and the gender pay gap is still sitting at 21.7%. Many families are choosing to keep the higher earner (more often the man) at work in order to meet child care responsibilities at home.    

WGEA data shows that half of employers in male- dominated industries do not offer any form of paid primary carer’s leave, highlighting the structural barriers to a more equitable distribution of labour. 

Structural barriers to progress, such as the limited access to flexible work options and parental leave for men, creates barriers to choices and opportunities which in turn reinforces and perpetuates the imbalance of household and caregiving responsibilities between genders. 

The survey shows a significant increase in the number of women returning to work sooner than they did five years ago. What do you think are the long-term implications of this trend on families and workplaces?

Ultimately this can only be positive for women and workplaces from the perspective of keeping women in the workforce and contributing diverse skill sets and qualities to our various industries. Though there have been recent changes to the Commonwealth Paid Parental Leave benefits this won’t impact all women and is still for a shorter period than most OECD nations.

Childcare reforms and paying superannuation on parental leave is a start, however more needs to be done to encourage women to stay with their careers rather than opting out of the workforce for an extended period of time in order to alleviate financial pressures from the cost of childcare.

For some women their return to work salary only covers childcare fees making the work care juggle more of a struggle than an enriching experience. When women (parents generally) are adequately supported with balancing their work and family commitments the survey showed that they are less likely to miss out on development opportunities, less likely to be held back from promotions, and less likely to receive negative comments from colleagues or managers regarding their family-friendly work arrangements. 

As the report states:

On a national scale, a more equitable distribution of care responsibilities will help reduce the gender pay gap and increase the GDP through greater women’s workforce participation. Modelling from Deloitte Access Economics has found that moving beyond prescriptive gender norms and adopting more flexible ideas around gender could lead to $128 billion in higher GDP each year and 461,000 additional full-time employees.

Despite the rise in flexible work arrangements post-pandemic, stress levels among working parents and carers remain high. What are some of the main factors contributing to this ongoing stress, and how can employers better support their employees?

Some of the main factors impacting working parents and carers stress include the cost of living crisis, inflexible work policies and lack of manager or leader support. 

The stress felt when juggling caring responsibilities and work is also not felt equally between men and women. Over 74 per cent of women agreed that they feel stressed when balancing work and family commitments, compared to 57 percent of men.

Female respondents were much more likely to report household chores and caring work as a top difficulty (47 per cent) compared to men (30 percent), and women were also overrepresented in respondents reporting difficulties in looking after mental and physical health (50 per cent, compared to 35 percent of men).

The top difficulty reported by men in the 2024 survey was lack of sleep (38 per cent), and higher rates of men also reported difficulties in managing expectations at home (32 per cent, compared to 27 per cent of women).

Employers are getting more creative in how they support employees with their stress levels. When it comes to parents and carers we offer Work + Care programs that include digital resources, a parental leave program and App, a women in leadership program and a work life balance educational series.

Some employers offer child care support, additional paid parental leave and wellbeing leave days. Becoming a certified Family Inclusive Workplace is a great way for employers to benchmark their family-friendly policies and practices for families. 

Balancing work and family commitments often brings physical and mental health challenges. Can you talk about some effective strategies or policies that have helped working parents manage these challenges more successfully?

We have some great case studies on our website which highlight what has worked well for companies, particularly on the parental leave front. Making language in PL policy gender neutral and making the leave flexible where possible are great examples of support for parents. 

You can read various policies here: 

The survey mentions traditional gender norms still influencing caring policies and attitudes in the workplace. How can organisations move towards more equitable and inclusive policies that better support all parents and carers?

The patterns of how work and caregiving intersect and are experienced by women and men in workplaces remain starkly different along gendered lines. The findings show a significant skew towards women bearing the majority of caregiving and household duties – nearly double that of men – despite working similar hours. 

Adequate investment in policies and workplace cultural attitudes towards employee caregiving responsibilities is emerging as one of the biggest workforce participation, engagement and productivity challenges facing business and government as they balance the need for economic growth with health outcomes and community expectations. 

We urge policymakers to rapidly invest in and promote family-friendly policies that de-stigmatise, respect and normalise caregiving as something most employees will need to do in their working lifetime regardless of gender. 

From your perspective, what are some of the most promising changes or initiatives you’ve seen in Australian workplaces that genuinely support working families, and how can other organisations adopt these practices?

In data released in the Bridging the Work + Family Divide report, which highlights the impact that certified Family Friendly Workplaces have on workplaces, found that: 

  • 74% promote gender equal access to paid parental leave and 26% have removed primary and secondary carer labels * 
  • 88% provide employees with guides and training to embed flexible work practices * 
  • 47% of policies and practices offer superannuation on unpaid periods of leave * 
  • 81% of employers with over 100 employees now offer superannuation on paid leave ** 
  • 64% have a formal family care policy or guideline in place * 
  • 17% provide back-up / emergency care * 
  • Approximately 50% measure the outcomes of the benefits of providing family friendly workplace policies and practices *
  • Employers can apply to be recognised as a Family Inclusive Workplace through a certification framework that benchmarks organisations against the National Work + Family Standards. These standards are based on extensive research and consultation with experts and employers and reflect best practice approaches to policies and ways of working to improve social impact outcomes including gender equality, wellbeing and inclusion.

For more information visit 

Providing leaders and managers with advisory and education solutions based on an organisation’s needs is a great way to build the foundations of a family-inclusive culture, policies and practices. Parents At Work also service parents and carers with an employee experience work life wellbeing platform (our Work + Family Hub), a parental leave program and App, a work-life wellbeing webinar series and leadership programs designed to care for the changing needs of employees at every life stage.

For more information visit 

About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.