Over the past few decades of Australian life, government policies have gradually offered more support to working mothers, particularly through childcare subsidies and parental leave. But what motivates Australian parents in their choices around work and childcare?
Historian Carla Pascoe Leahy from the University of Melbourne has been researching Australian motherhood from 1945 to the present. Her oral histories, reported in The Conversation, reflect a wide diversity of experiences of Australian mothers, but there are consistent threads in their narratives. Most mothers want some continuity with their pre-maternal identity, to feel a sense of meaningful contribution to their society, and to enjoy their relationships with their children.
Her conclusions: if government fails to comprehend the reasons why mothers choose to engage with different supports, family policy will be of limited effectiveness. Workforce participation and economic productivity are reasonable objectives of government policy, but they are not sufficient on their own.
When the PM announced his cabinet, it included 7 women ministers – a good sign – but only 23% of the Coalition’s MPs are women compared to 47% for the ALP – not impressive. However, as researchers Sue Williamson and Prof Linda Colley explain in The Conversation, it’s not just the number of women MPs that matters, it’s how they legislate for change.
According to neoliberal feminists, the struggle for gender equality is no longer dependent on collective action by society, rather it’s up to individual women to make the most of their opportunities and find success. But a policy focus on individual women’s advancement can risk overlooking the underlying causes of gender inequality, a key aspect of BPW Australia’s advocacy.
In November 2018, the Coalition government released its Women’s Economic Security Statement which contained three main “pillars” to achieving gender equality – workforce participation, earning potential and economic independence. The researchers assessed how effective they’ll be in improving women’s lives. They concluded that Australia needs a systemic approach that includes major reforms to the welfare system, increased funding and resources for domestic violence, improved housing affordability, and reforms to the tax system that take account of impacts on women. Yes, neoliberal feminism may benefit some women, but is unlikely to herald long-lasting changes that improve the lives of all women, particularly those at the lower end of the pay scale.
Financy questions: is it worth returning to work given the excessive cost of childcare? Women shouldn’t have to ask themselves this, but many do without considering their long-term financial security or their own dreams. Many women weigh up childcare costs with working, but consider the risks, not just for the woman’s career prospects but for the whole family’s financial security. Career breaks to have children are a key contributor to the superannuation savings gap that affects the financial security of women. Although these career breaks are often referred to as a choice made by the primary carer (namely women), the cost of childcare is a key financial consideration and a critical enabler of female workforce participation.
Natasha Janssens, author of Wonder Woman’s Guide to Money, says that a 25-year-old woman on a full-time yearly income of $60,000 stands to lose roughly $170,000 in superannuation by taking five years out of the workforce between age 35 and 40 and $400,000 if she takes 10 years out between 30 and 40. But if you knew that you would lose $400,000 in your retirement savings by staying at home to look after your kids full-time for 10 years, would you still think childcare was too expensive?
Women on Boards reports there is a mismatch in the skills and experience boards are recruited on and those that are effective in the boardroom. Prof. Stanislaw Shekshnia from INSEAD, speaking at a Women on Boards breakfast, observed that there was “a big difference between what makes you a board member and what makes you effective in the boardroom”.
Besides broad expertise and ambition for the institution, skills that make you effective in the boardroom include: soft skills such as listening, questioning and feedback; openness and learning capability; personal humility and maturity; sound preparation and willingness to commit time and focus. But companies recruit their board members based on: their name; their CV; their network; and their industry knowledge.
Prof. Shekshnia’s research in Europe indicated the attributes most likely to have you selected and appointed as a board chair are being a man and being a CEO. Women appointed as chairs tended to be older at first appointment, formally educated and have experience as an independent director.
Michelle Staff, a PhD student at ANU with an interest in women's and gender history, analyses the current and historical drivers of women's Parliamentary representation.
Australia was the first country in the world to grant (some) women the dual rights of voting and standing for parliament in 1902; South Australia had already granted these rights to all women in 1894.
Despite some significant advances since, Australia still lags behind global standards. Before the 2019 federal election, Australia was 48th in the world in terms of women’s lower house representation, tied with Angola and Peru and falling below many other countries such as Rwanda, Nepal and Ecuador.
The election has increased the proportion of women in parliament from 33% to around 35%, which clearly falls short of equal representation. This is a problem particularly for the Liberal party: only 23% of their representatives are women compared to the ALP’s 47%. Although Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s new ministry is being touted for its “record” number of women, the 7 women in the ministry hold just 8 of the 28 total cabinet positions.
So why are women still struggling to make gains in our parliament and what does this say about the state of our democracy? In The Conversation, Michelle explores the history of women's suffrage and tracks the discriminatory barriers that still impact today.
The Women’s Leadership Institute Australia has examined women's representation in the media and identified a problem: there are plenty of women working in the media, but that doesn't translate into media presence. As the '2019 Women For Media Report' shows, “...the media reality is that women are not experts, not sources. As those sources, we are missing from news stories and from feature stories, we are missing from photos both as photographers and as subjects; and we are missing in that very influential place in the Australian media landscape, our voices are missing from opinion pieces and columns.”
In this third instalment to the excellent Women For Media survey series, the news for news hounds is that the big story in gender inequality is in fact buried beneath the headlines. Broad Agenda provides an excellent summary or access the full report.
From Girls to Men: Social attitudes to gender equality in Australia is a research program hosted by the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra. The research program studies the attitudes of boys and girls, men and women to gender issues relating to equality and empowerment. The report presents the findings derived from a national online survey of 2,122 Australians which explored the attitudes of boys, girls, men and women to equality and empowerment. The findings are alarming. Read the full report and the summary snapshot.
Millennials, born between 1982 and 2000, are often portrayed as accepting and valuing gender equality. However, the survey results suggest Australia is following an international trend whereby Millennial and Gen X men are backsliding into traditional value systems.
Virginia Haussegger AM, the Director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, is concerned that gender equality progress in Australia is in trouble. She reports that, despite Australia’s leadership in developing some of the best anti-discrimination legislative frameworks in the world, a brewing climate of backlash is emerging as a whole new challenge. Meanwhile, Australian women are failing to flourish as well as they should – particularly given our decade long lead in global rankings for female education.
BPW Australia has a long relationship with the Women's Electoral Lobby. Since its inception in 1972, WEL has been feminist, fiercely non-partisan, independent and progressive in its social and economic policies and in its political advocacy.
WEL’s mission is to hold governments and political leaders to account to progress women’s equality across all aspects of Australian life. WEL does not shy away from this advocacy, and works tirelessly with subject matter experts to analyse government policy to identify the gaps, and the true impact of these programs on women’s lives.
WEL has released its 2019 Federal Election Scorecard, backed by their full statement.
Kelly O’Dwyer today responded to WEL’s election scorecard: ‘It’s not independent & ignores our achievements’ in Women's Agenda. WEL responds: Minister O’Dwyer misses the point on independent criticism from Women’s Electoral Lobby. WEL’s 2019 Federal Election Scorecard indicates whether parties are listening to Australian women and meeting their needs. WEL respects Minister O’Dwyer’s view and her hard work as Minister for Women, however we stand by our 2019 Federal Election Scorecard. It is measuring future party policies against WEL’s Top Priority issues. If political parties or the Government feel criticised, this helps them to reflect on what more they can do to achieve women’s equality under their leadership.
The Grattan Institute asserts the ALP's proposed change to childcare support is the most important economic news of the election campaign. The 2019 Grattan Institute Commonwealth Orange Book identified getting more women into the workforce as one of the most valuable things the next government could do. Female participation in the labour force is lower in Australia than in similar countries. It is particularly low for women working full-time. That’s because motherhood hurts female participation more in Australia than in other countries. Before having children, Australian women are just as likely to work as men. On having children, many drop out of work and some never go back. Those who do return often pay a career penalty, and the childcare barrier is a significant factor.
Women with children receive relatively little financial reward for entering the workforce, and even less for working more hours. Some find working more hours costs more than it pays. They face high effective marginal tax rates because as they work more hours they lose more family and childcare benefits as well as paying more income tax. Factoring in the cost of childcare itself, some face costs exceeding 100% of what they earn.
Here the Coalition deserves some credit. Its previous reforms to the childcare subsidy helped reduce effective marginal tax rates. But there’s still a long way to go, with many mothers still facing very high effective rates.
Women are entering and staying in the workforce in greater numbers than ever before, but many of us are still fighting an uphill battle when it comes to career opportunities. We’re still earning less than our male peers — a disparity that starts at the graduate level — and men continue to dominate leadership positions across most industries. Women who have children also continue to face a motherhood penalty and, come retirement, end up with significantly less in superannuation savings than men. Smart Company proposes that employers can do more:
Make equal pay a priority: The total remuneration gender pay gap was found to be at 21.3% at the end of 2018, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).
Champion women’s career progression: Women continue to be less likely to progress into managerial positions compared to their male colleagues.
Address unconscious bias: Unconscious bias is one of the biggest factors limiting a woman’s career potential, and sadly, it’s endemic in most industries.
Extend more family-friendly policies to male employees: As long as women are considered the primary caregivers of children, we will never achieve gender equality in the workplace.
Reward employees: What most women value in the workplace are more practical policies and opportunities - more flexibility, development training, job security and respect.
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