On the frequent occasions I find myself frustrated at the lack of progress on particular issues that I personally feel like I’ve been banging on about for over a decade I find myself thinking about the legions of women before me who have been agitating for the same change for several decades. I wonder how they manage to refrain from screaming blue murder from the rooftops.
The affordability and accessibility of quality early childhood education and care is one of those issues. For ten years now I’ve been flabbergast that in a country like Australia it is so difficult for families to patch together a care arrangement that works well for them and their children.
I have written countless times about the situations we embraced to make it work. Like in 2011 when the only position we could secure in Sydney for our toddler was an early learning service in the CBD. It meant travelling by bus morning and night with a toddler and the fact neither myself or my husband worked in the CBD made the daily rigmarole almost comical. That it cost $165 a day meant the annual subsidy ran out after 12 weeks, at which point we were spending more on care each week than we did on rent.
When our second daughter arrived it took 15 months before we could secure a place for each of our daughters on the same days at the same service. It meant engaging a nanny to create a patchwork of care so that I could take the job of my dreams and be in the office three days a week. Once again for over a year we spent more on care than we did on rent, which in a city like Sydney is frightening.
A bit later when we moved across the city in search of much-needed space, it took seven months to find a service near our new home with availability for both of our daughters. For seven months, three days a week I commuted, with a 4 year old and a 2 year old, literally across the city before making my way to work. (In October 2014 I actually openly invited Joe Hockey, Tony Abbott or any Cabinet minister to come along for a ride, any morning or afternoon, so desperate I was to enlighten our political leaders on the practical reality of combining work and family. They never responded.)
These aren’t sob stories; these are just the simple lengths many families must travel to have a shot at working while raising a family. When you add in the cost, the difficulty in matching up working hours with the right service, with the right availability, in the right locations, it is absolutely no mystery why so many families opt out. In too many instances it’s too hard. But that means children, parents and families miss out.
It is not hyperbole to suggest a universally accessible high quality early education and care system represents the most significant economic and social reform in a generation. It would transform outcomes for children, save buckets of money we currently spend on children we have left behind, create jobs and boost national productivity.
It would also dramatically increase the ability of women to live and work safely and reach their potential. The plethora of benefits a quality universally accessible early childhood education and care system would deliver to children, parents, women, families and the nation is profound. The evidence is incontrovertible.
So why hasn’t it happened? In many ways, it is like gender equity itself. It is infuriatingly ignored, dismissed and deflected as a problem.
For decades, women who have suggested they be given an equal shot at things like living safely, being paid fairly and securing leadership positions, have been told that just as soon as they find some “merit” they’ll be in with a shot. When the flaws of ‘merit’ are presented, it’s overlooked.
When they raise the pay gap, they’re told it’s a myth. If they want a raise, just lean in and ask for one! Evidence that shows women who do ask for pay rises are declined and then disadvantaged as a result of breaking the preferred pattern of behaviour among women is conveniently overlooked.
And yet we persist. Women have gone out and diligently gathered the evidence. They have presented “the business case” for diversity and a greater representation ad nauseam, despite their being no business case necessitated to prove why men ought to occupy the lion’s share of power which we know deliver sub-optimal results compared to more diverse leadership groups.
Women get ‘celebrated’ on International Women’s Day. They’re patted on the head and told that change takes time. They’re told their employer/prime minister/local member is trying to do the right thing by women but ‘they don’t always get it right‘. They’re told they’re hard to please.
They stand back and watch when 429 ‘esteemed’ business leaders are bold enough to oppose a vote, in 2021 no less, to enable women to become members of their beloved Australian Club. There is no doubt these men are the leaders in fields: they’re judges and CEOs and Chairs and Ministers who, no doubt, publicly espouse a commitment to gender equity and inclusion. But behind closed doors? They are willing to exclude women. Women who are invariably their colleagues and peers and counterparts but whom male leaders do not deem to be equal. Of course few would be brazen about it. No doubt in dealings with these women the men happily brandish their credentials and commitment to increasing the representation of women.
Which makes it all the more galling. Women are constantly told that Australia is a fair country. That sexism – like racism – is a relic. That women just have to be patient. They have to find some merit and wait in the wings, ideally with their mouths closed, while male leaders who can be accused of sexual harassment, run companies into the ground, demonstrate incompetence and abuse their power continue their ascent unharmed.
Pretending systemic sexism doesn’t exist is gaslighting. And so it is with the idea that Australia’s early childhood education and care system, very closely linked with gender equity, works well enough for children, parents or families. It doesn’t, as a new research report released by The Front Project on Thursday makes perfectly clear.
Of the 1700 parents surveyed, 52% of those using early education and care agree ‘it’s hardly worth working’ once the cost of care is considered. That is more than half of families telling us that once they have factored in the out of pocket cost it’s hardly worth them working.
“Families see early learning as vitally important to their lives and understand the multiple benefits that it delivers, but the system could work better for them,” The Front Project’s CEO Jane Hunt said. “Around 80 per cent of families believe that access to ECEC supports mental health and wellbeing for the whole family – this is on top of supporting children’s learning and development and assisting parents to work.
“However, finding early learning that is the right fit can be stressful. Parents feel like they lack genuine choice after taking into account issues surrounding affordability, available places and alignment with individual family needs.
“Costs are getting in the way of work opportunities for parents – almost 80 per cent say ECEC costs are a barrier to finding or returning to work, working more hours or retraining or studying.
“There is also evidence that ECEC costs are impacting decisions about having more children.”
The report makes clear that parents are desperate for government intervention to improve affordability, ensure appropriate geographic spread and increase availability.
Over 80 per cent of parents agree that ECEC professionals have a significant impact on children’s learning and wellbeing and more than 70 per cent support changing pay and conditions to reflect the importance of this work.
This research provides compelling new data on enduring problems that have existed in relation to Australia’s early education and care system. Several surveys, countless research reports and hundreds of news stories over the last decade alone have highlighted the extent to which the high cost of early education and care is a problem for families.
How the high cost is a barrier to children attending ECEC and parents working. How the children who would benefit most from access to ECEC are the least likely to attend in Australia. How one in five children arrive at school developmentally vulnerable. How peculiar Australia’s low female workforce participation rate is given how well educated women here are.
We are told that women’s workforce participation is on the rise – despite the World Economic Forum ranking Australia 70th out of 156 countries for female workforce participation in its most recent report.
We are told that families should be free to make their own choices about work and care – without the context of those “choices” being examined.
This report is a wake up call that I sincerely the Education minister, the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the seven members of the Women’s Cabinet taskforce take very seriously. Parents are desperately looking to the Federal government to improve the system. It’s time to accept the problems and work towards the solutions.