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Supporting women to support others

By Misty de Vries - posted Tuesday, 16 March 2010


It’s a fact: Australian women are working more now than ever before. Two in three women now participate in the paid labour force, and a majority of these work full time. While the Government and Opposition engage in some predictable argy-bargy over their competing paid parental leave schemes, one thing’s for sure: at last Australia has bi-partisan support for paid parental leave. Until now, we have been one of only two OECD countries without a scheme of some type. And it’s about time.

Women today are juggling more paid work, mothering and other unseen roles. Of Australia’s volunteer force, the Giving Australia report states that 60 per cent of total volunteer hours are provided by women and women represent 71 per cent of Australia’s primary carers of the frail aged and disabled according to the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers report. The cumulative consequence is that women who must manage a multiplicity of roles - especially those who are mothers or desire to be - experience serious work life conflict.

Women’s Forum Australia has conducted extensive research about this issue, through a focus group, literature review and web-based survey with more than 950 respondents. The results will be published in Work Life Balance: Reality Check, to be released later this month. Reality Check reveals that the pressures of juggling paid work are a significant barrier to women’s aspirations for family life. Up to 16 per cent of women are delaying children and 18 per cent of women are not having more children, despite the desire to have them. As one woman commented in the Reality Check survey: “I am due for my second baby next month. Work life balance issues will probably dictate whether I have a third.” Another mother in the paid workforce reported that “if it wasn't such a challenge to juggle everyone's needs, including my own, I would probably have another child”.

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And she’s not the only woman who’s juggling. Reality Check shows that women work harder overall than men, spending 78 hours/week on paid and unpaid work compared to 73 hours for men. Mothers of children under 15 provide around 2½ hours per day extra work compared to fathers, worth over $13,000 per annum if valued at $15/hour.

This doesn’t just cause stress at home. Reality Check shows that around 50 per cent of women forgo opportunities in the paid workforce and 45 per cent of women reduce their hours in paid work (and thus their income) or delay their career. This is also bad news for the Australian economy. At a recent COAG meeting, increasing women’s participation in the workforce was identified as a strategic issue for Australia’s future economic prosperity, predominantly because Australia’s population is ageing but our birth rate remains comparatively low.

Paid parental leave is a win for the economy and a win for women in the paid workforce. Regardless of their differences, both the Government and Opposition schemes evidence a progression in thinking that sanctions the unique “life cycle” characteristics of women's career paths, facilitates women’s participation in the workforce, supports their choice to be mothers, is family friendly and encourages the growth of a future labour force.

Paid parental leave is a big step forward. But it’s not enough.

For pregnant women in the paid workforce, the glass ceiling is firmly in place. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that one in five Australian pregnant working women experience missed training opportunities, inappropriate comments and other career detriments.

A report published in a leading international management journal found that numerous Australian employers disapprove of the bother, cost, and disruption of dealing with pregnant employees and those on maternity leave. Those employers need to know that flexible work practices such as maternity leave, carer’s leave, study leave, working from home, job sharing and rostered days off give employers a competitive edge in the job marketplace. Research shows that flexible work practices enhance recruitment and retention of quality staff, reduce turnover costs, generate a higher return on training investment, reduce absenteeism and client complaints, improve productivity, and generate goodwill as an “employer of choice”. Women aren’t the only winners.

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If we want to enhance women’s opportunities in the paid workforce the problem of childcare also needs to be addressed. It’s an important link to consider, given that half of Australian children access some form of non-parental childcare. Despite a number of government initiatives, there are still long waiting lists, industry inflexibility and prohibitive costs. A number of surveys, including Reality Check, show that the sheer cost and inflexibility of childcare arrangements mean that some women feel forced to accept and pay for childcare places while on unpaid maternity leave, many months before they were due to return to work. Others felt that the associated cost of paying for childcare had resulted in them abandoning their intentions to bear more children.

Many women who return to paid work after having a child have reported working only to see a significant portion of their income eaten up by the cost of placing their children in care. Mothers who work in low income or part time work and earn between $14,001 - $22,995 per annum face the highest marginal tax rates in Australia. Working mothers earning $14001 - $30,000 p.a. face average tax rates of 40 per cent of their income. Clearly, attention needs to be paid to this part of the equation as well.

Solutions do exist but they require long sightedness and a focus on valuing social capital by both industry and government. Tax deductibility of childcare, including care by grandparents, kin and nannies is an important consideration. More work-based childcare centres, removal of the delay in claiming childcare rebates and greater flexibility of childcare hours are other solutions.

We also need policies to facilitate the choice of women who wish to parent full time. For example, splitting a couple’s family income equally across both adults for taxation purposes, so that there is less marginal disincentive if one partner works fewer or no hours for pay.

Our workplace has changed rapidly, with the movement away from a traditional, single bread-winner society. Women’s roles have expanded to simultaneously be carers, mothers, volunteers and income providers. There has been a welcome shift towards sharing parenting responsibilities, although women still carry the greater portion of this load.

It’s time for government and industry to catch up with these changes and unequivocally acknowledge the value and cost of parenting and realise the long term benefits in supporting women’s and parents’ participation in the paid workforce.

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About the Author

Misty de Vries is Chief Operating Officer for independent womenís think tank, Women's Forum Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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