Published in The West Australian, the Adelaide Advertiser, and the Queensland Courier-Mail, 10 August 2020
Imagine putting in a full day at work, picking up the kids from day care, whipping up dinner for four, and finally putting your feet up, only to realise that you’ve got a measly $16 to show for your efforts. Tomorrow you’ll do it all again for nothing.
Welcome to the world of Australia’s working mothers.
The typical Australian woman with young kids is employed 2-3 days a week, much less than women in many other countries. But it makes a lot of sense when you look at how little Australian women get to take home after working additional days.
Australia’s tax and welfare settings, combined with high out-of-pocket childcare costs, make it barely worthwhile for the primary carer – generally a woman – to work 4 or 5 days a week.
Take a family with two kids in childcare, where dad earns $60,000 working full-time, and mum works three days a week for a similar wage. If she works a fourth day she takes home about $2 an hour, and she’d be working for nothing on her fifth day, largely because of the additional childcare costs.
Is it any wonder so few Australian women chose to work those extra days?
Now add in the COVID factor. Even before Victoria’s second wave, more than 40 per cent of families had lost work, hours, or wages in this crisis. Many others are in casual work where their hours are uncertain. But childcare remains a fixed cost: you pay for the spot whether or not you use it, and you need the spot to be ‘work ready’ in case an extra shift comes up.
Parents who want to do more paid work say the biggest barrier is the cost of childcare. It’s not hard to see why. Out-of-pocket childcare costs are particularly high in Australia and they bite even harder in a recession.
Making childcare cheaper is the single biggest thing the Australian Government could do to boost women’s workforce participation. And the economic and social payoffs would be big.
It would help Australia out of the COVID recession by allowing parents who have lost jobs or hours to keep their childcare place, so they can pick up work as it becomes available and their kids can continue learning. In the longer-term, it would boost the economy and improve women’s financial security, by increasing the pay-off for working.
But this is not just a problem for governments to solve. We all have a role to play.
The juggling act of work and care disproportionately falls to mothers. When heterosexual couples have kids, mothers typically reduce their paid work to take on the lion’s share of caring and housework, while fathers continue their paid work and take on a little bit of the caring. As the child grows up, caring becomes less time-consuming for both parents, but the habits established in those early years endure. The average woman does more caring and twice as much household work as her partner even a decade after the birth of the first child.
This unpaid workload limits women’s choices about paid work. While a male breadwinner and a female homemaker works for some families, it doesn’t work for all. A more equal sharing of the physical and mental load from unpaid work would allow greater balance in paid work.
The COVID-19 crisis provides a rare opportunity for us to reset this social norm.
Far too often flexible work, and particularly part-time work, is seen by workers, employers, and society at large to be a women’s domain. But the pandemic has forced many employers around the globe to introduce working-from-home and more flexible work options for all their workers.
Making flexible working arrangements available to men as well as women is a game-changer for families who want to share employment, caring, and household responsibilities more equally. Being forced to work from home over the past few months has been tough for many people, but our new widespread capability for remote and flexible work should not be lost as we emerge from the crisis.
Governments and employers should embrace policies that allow families to make their own choices about how they want to balance work and care. Because asking mothers to work for free, or not allowing fathers time to spend with their kids, is no choice at all.