I read a recent article that called for the banning of the stay at home mum to close the gap, however I believe the questions are deeper and more numerous than a solitary clickbait headline.
There’s been a lot of recent hoo-hah about the OECD report into participation in the workforce, particularly our own. And in the current tradition of ignoring the vulnerable for the sake of clickbait, there have been plenty of opinions about who should be doing what.
In short, the report mentioned five areas where Australia can learn from other countries who are doing better than we are.
Lessons from other OECD countries that Australia could consider adopting include:
- Support for disadvantaged youth to complete education and transition into work;
- Mutual obligations for mature-age job seekers, in line with other age groups;
- Return-to-work support for workers at risk of long-term sickness absence;
- Mental health focus in workplace legislation and employment service provision;
- Strict work testing for lone parents coupled with provision of affordable childcare;
- Facilitation of a better work-life balance to close the gender employment gap.
For example, while acknowledging the decreased stigma surrounding mental illness in Australia, the report states that “the gap in the employment rate between people with and without a mental illness is somewhat larger in Australia than in other countries for which comparable data are available: the employment gap is 14 and 34 percentage points for Australians with mild-to-moderate and more severe mental illness respectively.”
That’s a huge pay gap. It’s worth noting that mental illness is usually episodic, meaning that people are not ill all the time. There are strategies to assist people to work when they’re well, prevent stress-related illness, and support them when they become unwell in ways that can see them retain employment. So the 34 point gap is fixable. But we won’t talk about that. Or disadvantaged youth who have boundless potential or people over fifty who have boundless experience.
Rather, columns like this one by Sarah le Marquand in the Telegraph chose to focus in on the burden of women who do not work and have a child. Her link to the report was to a news.com.au article telling us that:
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found the employment rate of women aged 25-54 years was in the lower third of OECD countries at 72.5 per cent. Australia’s employment rate of single mothers, 50.8 per cent, was among the lowest in the developed world, with only Ireland and Turkey doing worse.
Not just the non-working mother, the single mother. Again. Those ones who obviously brought this on themselves. We’re never shown the single mother who is single because the father/s of her children were violent, left the relationship, or died. No, the single mother is living it up on welfare, because who would work when you can spend most of that welfare cheque on rent in Australia for the privilege of a roof?
Or if you’re not pouring most of those benefits into basic accommodation, you’re way more likely to be isolated from the areas where employment is more possible. Because that’s how Australia works now. Our airport staff can’t afford to go home because it’s too expensive to sleep in the places they work long shifts to afford.
So how would one throw motherhood on top of that?
The recommendations of the report which are largely about accessible childcare and work-life balance are ignored in columns like the one featured in the Telegraph, because you can’t let reality get in the way of a good opinion.
Recommendations that maybe if childcare didn’t cost up to $200 per day per child, there’d be incentive for parents who earn under $70,000 a year to put their infant in day care five days a week. The real result is that many couples decide who can bring home the most bacon, and the other stays home. The one who earns the most takes on as many hours as possible, and the lower earner stays domestic.
If women’s workforce participation were of real concern, childcare would be an urgent priority, where government and corporate employers would ensure high quality education which was accessible and affordable. If childcare were onsite at parents’ workplaces, participation wouldn’t just rise, it would skyrocket.
With a population of 22 million sharing a space the size of the United States’ 350 million, the comparisons to almost any other country are complex.
And we don’t have the infrastructure.
We live in a country where some people don’t have to work because they’re rich enough. Is it possible that low maternal workforce participation is a sign of wealth? Some women don’t have to work at all, children or not.
The roads are full, the journeys are long, the trains are crowded and the cost of housing near the places of employment are high. It’s hard to get to work. It’s even harder to get kids to childcare and school before the real commute begins. It’s a credit to Australians that they leave home at all to work, when the long, expensive and frustrating travel there is often done in the belting heat, or freezing cold.
The most logical step might then be self-employment from home, but this is limited by the cruelly slow Internet speeds, should anyone wish to compete globally to earn money. Even for those with home-based businesses that rely on delivery of goods, such as eBay, profit margins are reduced by the geography, the transport barriers in major cities and the inability to rival other countries online. They’re sold an item, while Australians are still waiting for the page to load.
But even if you have air conditioning, NBN that actually makes some kind of noticeable difference, and unshakeable faith in Australia post, the report also discusses how the tax burden for the second income earner in a marriage is a disincentive for women as well.
It’s Australia that’s letting down Australians, not the mums.
This really isn’t much to do with gender any more than Kate Ellis leaving politics was to do with the patriarchy. Wanting to spend more time with your children when you’re pregnant isn’t the patriarchy’s fault, even though the pension she’ll receive after ten years of service was probably instituted by men. And here is where the other end of the spectrum is also ignored.
We live in a country where some people don’t have to work because they’re rich enough. Is it possible that low maternal workforce participation is a sign of wealth? Some women don’t have to work at all, children or not, leaving them free to employ nannies and pursue lattes if they wish. It’s called marrying well.
Le Marquand’s article reminds us quite strongly, that feminism is about equality, not choice. In other words, if she has to work, then you damn well should too.
The title of her article tells readers it should be illegal for women (not men) to be stay at home parents, though how this would be enforced isn’t clear. She says that this will force culture to change, which will make for better children. If their parents aren’t out at compulsory labour activities or in jail due to their unemployment status.
Rather than criminalising, why don’t we focus on making employment more viable for all parents, regardless of gender, for a more well adjusted society and families overall?