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Childcare is not a welfare issue – it’s a workforce participation issue and it’s why workforce participation by Australian women is amongst lowest of OECD countries

Do you screen your phone calls?  I do… quite often, in fact.  I do it because I need to be in the right space to be in contact with the outside world, and so if I’m overly frazzled I let the voicemail take control.  This is especially the case when a certain 2-year-old has been on a flu-induced no-sleep campaign that has sent me into a mania of equal or greater proportion to his (BTW for anyone else feeling my pain – check out this e-book that’s guaranteed to make you laugh out loud for perhaps the first time this week – well it did for me anyway, which probably explains why I’ll never win the “Mother of the Year” award!  And thanks to Kate for sending it through – the best therapy that money can’t buy!!)


So I’ve been screening calls quite a lot lately.  I’ve been moving farms, getting the animals settled into their new surroundings, trying to clean and move into a house that’s been empty for two years, rescuing the beagles from adventures that seemed like a good idea at the time, stringing tarpaulins over chicken coops in the black of night as the storm fronts pass through (and droopy chooks watch on!)… oh, and then there’s the daycare dilemma.

So just in the thick of the move I found out that one of our childcare options was no longer… so I’ve been trying to recruit a new au pair for my farm days and in the mean time driving 2 hours to Ethan’s fabulous day care centre in the city on the other days because the best I can manage locally is a spot on yet another wait list.

Anyone who has young kids – or has staff with young kids – will be aware that as much as the government keeps telling us there are plenty of childcare options, the reality is quite different.  My friend Tony gets this because he owns a fantastic daycare centre that is run by his daughter.  He has long wait lists there and he gets how stressful it is for parents to find quality, affordable day care.  And therefore he’s one of the few people whose calls I never screen – because I can be as frazzled as can be (and often I am!) and yet I know that he will never pass judgment as we yak about all things business while balancing all the other stuff going on in life.

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This issue of childcare is a big one though and the more I think about it, the more I wonder why it is that childcare and its impact on women’s careers is so often overlooked, ignored and simply swept under the carpet by our policy makers and the powers that be.

* * *

Earlier this month the government handed down a budget a core component of which is the employment of more Australians.  Getting more Australians into the workforce – or back into the workforce – it says will help deliver economic gains to our economy and help Australian business to overcome a serious skills shortage.  So programs were announced to educate teenage mums, to improve reading, writing and numeracy among job-seekers, to train youth in regional areas and to break the cycle in areas where unemployment is so endemic that entire generations have never experienced the benefits that employment brings.

But did anyone notice the massive blind spot?  i.e. where were the initiatives to encourage more women back into the workforce?

According to research by the EOWA, Generation F (the women in the Australian labour force, including women wishing to return to work) are “employers’ main solution to the nation’s proliferating skills shortage and harnessing their skills, commitment and experience will help organisations to secure effective and sustainable workforces”.  And yet there was nothing in this year’s budget focused on better engagement and workforce participation of this sector, which constitutes “more than half of Australia’s population and nearly 45% of the nation’s total labour force, a more substantial proportion than the Generation Y population”.

Australia has long been in the top group of OECD countries for educating women, and women form the majority of our educated talent outnumbering men in our universities at a rate of 1.3 to 1.  Anyone recruiting for a major organisation will know that with this current talent profile at undergraduate level it’s often necessary to discriminate against women at entry levels just to ensure there are enough men coming in at the most junior levels.  And yet we see that from that very point of entry onwards, there is a significant drop off in women at every single incremental level of the organisation until at the very top there are just 8% of women holding key executive roles.

It’s when the parenting kicks in though that female workforce participation really drops off with Australia having one of the lowest workforce participation rates for women of child rearing years – the 8th lowest of all OECD countries in fact.  Unsurprisingly, Australia also has one of the most expensive childcare systems and yet successive governments have continued to deny the link between childcare and careers for women. 

We see that those countries with the greatest access to universally funded and available childcare have the greatest female workforce participation rates, with Scandinavia and communist nations leading the charge.  In these countries it is understood that unless you get childcare right, you’ll never get women back into the workforce and contributing to the productivity of the nation.  And yet our policy makers continue to confuse welfare with the wellbeing and sustainability of our workforce, and as a result we see the current policy thinking on the affordability of quality childcare just another “welfare” grab by families who are “too rich” to deserve government handouts.

As an educated woman I know that the degrees and diplomas I hold contribute greatly to the organisations I work with.  I am thankful that I live in a country that provides me with these educational opportunities – however I also see in my work that many women with similar educational backgrounds and experience levels are simply opting out of the workforce due to the cost of childcare with parents in cities paying as much as $30,000 per year per child in day care costs, from after tax dollars. 

Under the current arrangement the government is double dipping on tax – asking us to pay for our childcare in our net pay after income tax has already been deducted; and then also taxing the childcare centres on the fees that we pay from our post-tax salaries.  It’s no wonder under this lucrative current arrangement that the government is reluctant to give up on this cash grab.

* * *

But the opportunity cost of our most educated and experienced women simply exiting the workforce is enormous, and a huge frustration to the business leaders I work with.  And it’s something that as a nation we can no longer afford to ignore.  

* * * 

This is why I’ve jumped on board the Make Care Fair campaign and you might have seen me on The 7pm Project talking about this very issue (fast forward to 4:30 minute mark on the clip) and why we need significant government reform to make childcare more affordable and flexible for all working families.  And while it is a family issue, I also know from sphinxx research that women bear the brunt of it when it comes to their careers, with 48% of women saying the cost of childcare negatively hit their career but not their partner’s career.

What employers and policy makers need to be aware of is that this is not just an issue for preschool aged children – it’s actually harder for parents of school-aged children to manage before and after school logistics as well as the 12 weeks of school holidays every year and until we provide a means of financial support for working parents in this respect too it will be impossible to see women contribute as fully as many would like.  And it’s having a long term, incremental impact on the financial wellbeing of Australian women not just when they off-ramp but as they approach and enter retirement age.

And so this is not a welfare issue – it’s a workforce participation issue and it’s about the wellbeing of current and future generations of Australians.  The current limitations of childcare rebates for long day care centre in the pre-school years is also a serious flaw of our current system and largely ignores the needs of parents who travel for work, work hours outside of standard business hours or for those times like now when colds and flus and illness make it impossible to utilise the long day care options.  A more flexible system that provides financial support to parents who are contributing to the economy, paying their taxes, maintaining their skills and also seeking the best care options for their children in simply a smarter form of public policy.  And it’s absolutely crucial for the sanity of all the frustrated parents out there who want and need to go to work but can’t resolve their daycare dilemmas!

If you haven’t signed the petition yet at then I urge you to do so.  We need men and women, with kids and without, to show their support of better policies to engage women more effectively in the workforce:  employers need it, women need it and our families and children need it. 

Our petition will be sent to Canberra next month so I’d really appreciate you passing the link on to your family, friends and colleagues for their input.

Kate commented on 01-Jun-2011 11:45 AM
Jen – I so related to the scramble to get on child care lists. The memory of house moves were always precipitated by where the childcare available! But I want to point out it is not only the childcare…it is the fact that now every school and child facility
is surrounded by a 40km zone, which makes sense….but the consequence is all those working mothers, scrambling too late to pick up their children – end up losing their licenses as well! It’s the ultimate guilty mother trap! At my school there was a significant
group of the “speeding” mothers who would commiserate,managing toddlers and babies with bikes and towing capsules (which to me looked more dangerous in the Eastern Suburbs than the women actually driving!).
The SheEO commented on 01-Jun-2011 11:53 AM
Oh Kate, I’m having visions of the picture you’ve painted and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry… or pour myself a glass of red and commiserate with your mums! But it’s too early in the day for that so I’ll get on with the government submission I’m
working on and a shareholder complaint letter and hope that the emotion has passed by the time this evening rolls around! Thanks for your comments… solidarity helps 🙂


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