What should government do differently?

In his own words - Women in Leadership

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Set tough targets

We need national targets to improve gender equity on Government boards, front bench seats and leadership teams in public listed companies. For example, through the BoardLinks program, the previous Government was on track to achieve its 40 (women): 40 (men): 20 (open) target for Government boards by 2015. This target should be sustained across government and expanded to the corporate sector at board and executive levels.

Create infrastructure to support Australian families

As a country, we need to make a concerted effort to stop talking about and setting policies around parental leave and family responsibilities as if it is the exclusive domain of women. As Alan Joyce puts it, “Family is not a male issue or a female issue - it’s for both genders.”

It is also an issue that not only affects families with children - but all Australians.

Working parents fulfill valuable roles in the community and the economy. They are able to pay taxes that benefit the country and subsequently require fewer government benefits. With a comparatively small population and a shrinking labour market, it makes good economic sense to support those wanting to re-enter the workforce as much as possible.

If we’re serious about improving productivity and growing our economy in a sustainable way, Australia needs infrastructure that enables parents to both work and care for their children.

This will require:

  • Parental leave - we need social and economic infrastructure that reflects the new shape of modern parenting. We need to recognise that parenting is the responsibility of ever changing households, including single parent families and same sex couples. Traditional family caring roles have shifted considerably over the last five decades. Public discourse and government policies need to catch up to this reality.

    In future, more Australian families will rely on female breadwinners, with increasing numbers of men taking up primary care roles. The latest census1 shows that, in the past decade, Sydney’s proportion of couples where women earn more than men has climbed from almost one in eight to one in six. If we follow US trends, where 40% of working wives outearn their husbands, this trend will only continue to rise.

    We need a parental leave scheme that matches this reality by better supporting shared care and giving both parents more flexibility to continue with their careers. It is not difficult to find excellent examples of such schemes working well in other countries. Australia needs to learn from the experiences of other countries and other economies as to what works, and borrow from global best practice to support a more productive economy.

    In Iceland, couples get nine months’ leave at 80% pay. Three months are reserved for the mother, three months must be taken by the father, and the couple can choose to share the remaining three.

    Swedish parents are given 480 paid days, at $950 a week to be shared between them and used at any time before the child turns eight.

  • Child care - Parental leave is important, but it’s not the first six months that determine whether women will successfully combine motherhood and a career - it’s whether they can afford or find good quality childcare options for the longer term.

    In a recent survey2, 57% of women said the cost of childcare has hit their careers, 95% said making childcare tax deductible would attract their vote and 82% would vote for the party extending rebates to in-home care.

    If we want both men and women to be able to contribute to the economic well-being of the nation, we need infrastructure that actively supports this ideal - rather than our current childcare provisions, which make it financially impossible for many women to continue with their careers. We also need an overarching, all-encompassing plan to support working parents - not a series of piecemeal offerings.

    Australia needs more affordable, easily accessible and high quality childcare. We have public education accessible to all Australian families. This ideal needs to be extended to a public childcare system as well.

    In Sweden, Each child is guaranteed a place at a public preschool and no parent is charged more than three per cent of their salary, with fees capped at $260 a month. If we had a similar scheme in Australia, it would dramatically improve workforce participation. Women would return to work much earlier and be prepared to work longer hours.

Stop writing bias into legislation

On a final note, if we as a country, are committed to achieving a high level of female workforce participation and overall gender equity, as well as making the most of our well educated population, biases that exist in Government legislation need to be addressed.

The new Government’s planned Parental Leave plan will legislate along gender lines. Its model is pegged to the woman’s salary, assuming this will always be lower than her partner’s. And, while the policy is open to both parents, it specifically asks women to stay home for the entire 26 weeks for the ‘good health of the child’.

In fact, studies show that children of working mothers suffer no ill effect due to her working outside of the home. A UK study3 by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) showed no significant detrimental effects on a child’s social or emotional development if their mothers work during their early years. In fact, the ideal scenario for children, both boys and girls, was shown to be where both parents lived in the home and both were in paid employment.

What can government do differently?

  • Set up parental leave schemes, education campaigns and community groups that support shared care and empower fathers to take part in childcare from the beginning
  • Provide affordable, public childcare focussed on early childhood education
  • Make childcare tax deductible
  • Consider making flexible working hours a right for all Australians
  • Stop writing bias into legislation

1 Household incomes get a woman’s touch, The Age, 15 July, 2012

2 Make Care Fair Survey, Sphinxx, 2013

Working mothers and the effects on children, Science Daily, 21 July 2011, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110721212455.htm