A recent article in The Economist described women as the ‘world’s most under-utilised resource’. It showed that getting more women into work is part of the solution to many economic woes, including shrinking populations, skills shortages and poverty. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has also argued that nothing is more important for development today than the economic, political, and social participation of women.

It is no coincidence, then, that in the last half-century the regions that have most successfully closed gender gaps in education – eastern Asia, south-eastern Asia, and Latin America – have also achieved the most both economically and socially.



But in Australia, although legislation like the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Act has been in place for some 19 years and the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act has been in place for 7 years, and even though we have bureaucratic bodies like the Commonwealth and NSW Office for Women, the Federal Government’s Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) and the Commonwealth Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, the outcome of many gender based surveys (including the recent biennial survey conducted by EOWA) indicates that this country is just not achieving greater equality between the sexes. If our existing legislation, resources, practices and policies are not making better progress then surely our Government needs to have a better look at the ongoing problems Australian women face in achieving (amongst other things) financial independence and self-sufficiency.

At the launch of the 2006 Census of Population and Housing at the National Press Club on 24 July 2006, Treasurer Peter Costello discussed in graphic detail the economic consequences of declining fertility rates and the economic benefits derived from increasing the workforce participation rates of women. But he failed even to mention one of the most common complaints of women: the high cost of childcare. In Australia childcare is prohibitively expensive, even after a family has received Child Care Benefits, Family Tax Benefits and maternity payments. Its discouraging effect in terms of female workplace participation is heightened by the financial disincentives created because women need to align themselves somewhere within the current childcare rules to meet the eligibility criteria for government assistance. Figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that only 43.2 per cent of mothers with two or more children are in the workforce in Australia, whereas the figure is 60 per cent in other developed countries. To what extent is this due to lack of affordable child care?

The National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling has shown that lifting the childcare assistance eligibility cut-off to $75,000 would cost $3.8 billion, but would go a long way towards eliminating all the disincentives: a small price to pay for getting women working and simultaneously improving gender equity, family income and the tax base.

Even after supporting the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s project "Striking the Balance with Work and Family" and conducting its own inquiry into "Balancing Work and Family" before handing down its 2006 budget, the Government still refuses to revive subsidies so that non-profit centres can compete with the dominant corporate centres. Nor will it boost the child-care benefit to help defray the rising costs: it is the one family payment that has been relatively fixed over the years. Instead, the Government stubbornly sticks with its new, ill-conceived child-care tax rebate that is complex, inequitable, and only gives money back 18 months after it is paid out.

And the Government is also moving timidly in terms of inflation affecting eligibility: from July 1, a family can earn $40,000 instead of $37,500 before its Family Tax Benefit is reduced. Whoopee! After tax is paid and benefits are lost, many will still have little to show for the time they spend working.

But out in the "free market", on the other hand, Consumer Price Index figures released in April show that in the preceding 12 months child care costs increased by 12%. Childcare increased at almost 5 times the rate for all goods and services!

The Government acknowledged at the last election that child care fees are too high. The 30% rebate was the solution it proposed, but the proposed rebate is having the opposite effect by pushing prices up.

Just how unaffordable childcare in Australia has become is obvious from the disturbing news that some of Australia’s corporate childcare giants are offering debt facilities to parents.

"Falling" thanks to The Contextual Villains

So what are some of the problems Australian women still face? Is it really a lack of confidence or experience that holds women back?

Women’s working lives are traditionally characterised by broken patterns of workforce participation due to child bearing and raising, underutilisation of their skills and residual wage discrimination. On top of that an estimated 475,000 Australians now perform the role of informal primary carer of people with disabilities or older people, and over 70 per cent of these carers are again women. With these burdens it is not surprising that most Australian women are still not experiencing the financial benefits flowing from continuity of employment, and consequently are not financially independent by the time they reach retirement age.

They also face:

  • Lack of affordable childcare and nursing care support.
  • The general erosion of community-based but government funded social support services.
  • Low wages. Women make up 45% of the overall workforce, but make up the majority of casual and part time workers. 95% of women who work earn less than $50,000 and half earn less than $32,000. Female managers and executives remain a minority: small and medium businesses often struggle to provide support such as paid maternity leave, and so some women leave to work for ’employers of choice’ (usually large corporations) who are able to provide those benefits.
  • Tax obstacles.
  • Difficulties caused by having to calculate earnings in advance in order to satisfy Family Assistance Office requirements. Underestimating earnings often results in the accumulation of onerous Centrelink debts.
  • Inadequate encouragement by governments at both State and Federal levels of formal private and public sector work-life policies and practices. Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination, Pru Goward, appears to support this view: “…working hours frequently discourage intimacy…and young women believing their work choices will not support their family choices, increasingly choose to delay having children. Amongst high achievers and tertiary educated women, this problem is significant – and of course it is no accident that these are also sought after workers who work long hours. Surely if work-life balance were an acceptable, talked about and embraced life-objective, this choice need not be so stark. And it is not just an issue of childlessness, but of decreasing family size.”
  • The small percentage of Australian Workplace Agreements that provide for paid maternity leave.

A Fairer Future

Drawing on lessons from overseas experiences, Pru Goward said in the Australian Social and Economic Policy Public Lecture Series:

“….. a new relationship between gender equality and fertility has emerged in mature economies. These economies, with well established and sophisticated education and industrial systems, demonstrate that declining fertility now results from gender inequality. It’s what happens when you half do the job. When you give women equal access to education and to jobs, but you don’t change the jobs to accommodate people who have onerous caring responsibilities. It’s what happens when you give women reproductive rights and access to contraception but you don’t give them paid maternity leave and other basic supports like the right to work part time and where child care is expensive and difficult to get. If it’s too hard to both work and have children- some will stop work but others will stop parenting.”

With that in mind, the following may be some steps in the right direction:

  • A government funded paid maternity leave entitlement would support working women by providing payments as a return on the tax that they have paid and will pay.
  • The Swedish Childcare Model should be developed here in Australia. In 2005 Sweden’s population was 9.1 million and rising. Swedish childcare has two aims: first, to support and encourage a child’s development and learning and help them get a good start in life, and second, to enable parents to combine parenthood with employment or studies.

A system of maximum childcare fees has been introduced, and a ‘ceiling’ is placed on the amount that parents are required to pay for childcare. At Swedish pre-school facilities (pre-schools and family daycare units) the fee charged may be no more than 1—3 % of the family’s income depending on how many children the family has, and may notexceed SEK 1,260 ($229.93 AUD) per month for the family’s first child, SEK 840 ($153 AUD) for the second child, and SEK 420 ($76.63) for the third child.
In the school-age childcare system (leisure-time centres and family daycare units) the fee charged may be no more than 1—2 % of the family’s income, and may not, however, exceed SEK 840 ($153 AUD) per month for the family’s first child and SEK 420 ($76.63 AUD) for the second and third child.

The payoff from fairer treatment of women is clear. By treating women fairly we will give our country its best chance for success and long term sustainability; by failing to do so we will put those things at risk.

But real action is difficult to achieve without political will, and for all their official puffery our governments lack that political will. There is an inescapable irony, if not a degree of hypocrisy, in our elected representatives holding court on the equality of women and the sanctity of ‘Australian values‘ when in practice they neither seek nor act upon the views expressed by Australian women about the issues that affect them. Perhaps they should just ask women what they think, really listen to what they say and finally use that real data to formulate realistic and achievable policies that might actually work.

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