How do we focus on getting more women into & promoted in STEM when we're struggling to afford childcare?

How do we focus on getting more women into & promoted in STEM when we’re struggling to afford childcare?

What does a Federal politician and stem cell researcher have in common? It turns out, a shared frustration of how coronavirus is pushing women into a giant step backwards.

When I was paired with Ged Kearney, MP for Cooper through the Science and Technology Australia STEM Ambassador Program, we were supposed to work on promoting women in STEM. However, as the outbreak of coronavirus distracted all normal work, Ged and I quickly found ourselves venting about all the women we knew who were out of work, struggling to afford childcare or balancing home schooling with a full work from home calendar.

It’s not just anecdotal. The Guardian reports that analysis of the labour force statistics shows women are dropping out of the workforce altogether and are unemployed at a higher rate than men. Women who are still employed have found that their paid hours plummeted by half, more than for men. And yes – more women are working from home, presumably to care for children in the house.

Sorry sisters but the pandemic has devastated work opportunities for women and substantially increased their unpaid care work.

I’ve been luckier than most. I still have paid work and need to go into the lab to do this work. Which means like so many working women, my career is reliant on childcare for my young son.  

Ged Kearney, MP for Cooper

Free childcare delivered by the Government during the first COVID lockdown period was a welcome relief for both families and childcare centres. It allowed centres to continue operating (albeit only with JobKeeper to cover staff wages) and it allowed parents like me to stay connected to my work.

And yet as Victoria moves into the second lockdown, the Federal government has abandoned its support for the female dominated & female affected childcare sector.

Last month families were ‘snapped back’ into paid childcare with the re-instatement of the pre-COVID childcare system, a scheme that the Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan has said was ‘working effectively’. Was it, Dan?

If we accept that childcare is an essential service, then it must be affordable. Well Dan, pre COVID childcare was anything but affordable. Australia’s childcare had some of the highest out-of-pocket costs among the OECD countries and realistically pre-COVID childcare acted more as a disincentive for ‘second-earners’ (usually women) to take on more hours of work.

If childcare was not affordable before the pandemic, how are families going to cope now? The recession will only deepen, with many more families set to lose income. Many will find themselves going through the bills, making tough decisions to reduce childcare attendance, which begs the question of how will childcare centres remain viable?

Well, spare a thought for the 200,000-strong early education workforce too, who are mostly low-income earning women. By snapping back to the pre-COVID system and removing JobKeeper for early educators, centres who have only just scraped through the last few months, will now be forced to let go of staff as more families remove their children due to the high fees.

What families need now is a more affordable, incentivised childcare system that will allow parents to keep their jobs, take on more hours of paid work, look for new work, and upskill for new employment opportunities. There are policy fixes for this. The Grattan Institute has outlined a system that could be implemented now.

In the meantime, from a stem cell researcher and politician, we want to say to the women who have been hit hard by the pandemic – we see you, we hear you and we’ll be fighting for your work opportunities and for affordable childcare. This pandemic should be a rallying cry to finally value women and all they bring to a society and the economy.

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