Australian women have some of the highest rates of education in the world but continue to face limitations in sharing such skills in the paid workforce.
One such limitation across the formal care sector is the activity test on early childhood education.
More than 81,000 Australian women want to enter the workforce or increase their working hours but can’t due to the caring responsibilities they have for children, according to data this week from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The 81,000 women come in addition to, but far outnumbers, the 12,000 men who say they also want to work or work more hours, but are restricted due to their responsibilities caring for children.
The ABS also found that for 54 per cent of parents who are not currently working, financial assistance with the cost of childcare would be an incentive to work.
As for those who do have paid work but want to work more hours, these figures highlight another ongoing challenge – the “part-time promotions cliff” that perpetually traps women who make up the overwhelming majority of this workforce in positions that lack managerial responsibilities. Just seven per cent of managers work part-time, according to November 2023 data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. These figures dramatically highlight how managerial and leadership positions are still mostly reserved for those who can work full-time across businesses with 100 or more employees in Australia.
Women have a wide range of reasons for working part-time including health, study a disability or something else. But for many, care for younger children as well as school-aged children keeps them in the part-time work loop. Cchildcare-related costs and access, including early childhood education and out-of-school care, can limit or disincentivise them from taking a fourth or fifth day of work.
Despite additional billions going into early childhood education reform, the system continues to disincentivise or restrict those who care for children – and it is overwhelmingly women – from being able to participate in the workforce or from taking on the extra hours and work they want and need.
The ABS research comes as additional research this week from Impact Economics and Policy finds that removing the activity test on accessing childcare could see an additional 39,000 women participating in the workforce every year, boosting the economy by a massive $4.5 billion.
Impact Economics also finds that removing the test calculating a family’s right to access childcare according to the number of hours parents have worked or studied could see an additional 108,000 children in NSW and Victoria benefiting every year, by being able to participate in universal access to preschool.
As Acting CEO of The Parenthood Jessica Rudd, the activity test is one that “directly exacerbates the unaffordability of childcare” and stands in the way of parents – and again, it’s mostly women – who want to work, from being able to do so. She said this test is trapping parents in a “cycle of being unable to find a job without childcare, and unable to afford childcare without a job.”
So far, The Productivity Commission, ACC, and the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce have all recommended the Activity Test be amended or abolished – along with numerous advocates and experts in this space, including The Parenthood.
It’s not the silver bullet amendment that would change everything for women, but it’s one that could support some women to enter the workforce or to take up more paid work. And the figures show that it’s one that will ultimately support more children to access early childhood education.