Let’s stop the gender wars. Women do not hold the sole responsibility to have children. It takes two to make a baby and it takes a village to raise a child – so why doesn’t government and workplace policy reflect this?
Last month former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s suggested Australia has a “need for more middle-class women to have children”.
The debate triggered by his remarks brings to light just how complex and multifaceted the issue of procreation actually is. While it has sparked many valid points to be raised about the cost of childcare, the mental load women face and the lack of superannuation during maternity leave, it also exposed a more insidious subconscious bias, and not just in the mind of Mr Abbott. I don’t know if you noticed, but hardly anyone took issue with the implication that women—and women alone—are responsible for the nation’s birth rate.
Whose job is it anyway?
For starters, addressing Australia’s population growth is not about getting more women to have children, it is about getting more people, couples and families to have children.
Women are not the gender solely responsible for raising children. It takes two to make a baby and it takes a village to raise a child. In the lifespan of a human being, there is only a relatively short period (in utero) where the woman has sole responsibility for the wellbeing of that child. So why then in the 21st Century do we continue to use language that implies that childrearing is only a woman’s responsibility? Men can’t give birth, and they can’t breastfeed, but it’s insulting to suggest that they are incapable of other parenting duties.
Mothers can no longer afford to stay at home
Putting aside a woman’s personal desire for whether and how she wishes to parent, it is becoming increasingly evident that women can no longer afford to sacrifice their financial independence for the sake of raising a family.
One needs to only look to the recently emerging rates of homelessness among divorced women over the age of 50 to realise the perils of being a stay at home parent. Faced with ageism and an extensive gap from the workforce, many women are unable to obtain paid employment. And unless during the course of the relationship the couple have managed to accumulate significant assets, both inside and outside of super, and the separation is fair and equitable, women can find themselves in a precarious position of being unable to find work, and having no resources to fall back on.
We are all in this together
And last but not least, it’s not just women who are struggling to afford to have more children. The family unit as a whole faces a myriad of challenges when it comes to raising children and the low rate of paid parental leave is just one of them.
The growing costs of living and home ownership place greater pressure on both parents to work. At the same time, shrinking community support for parents forces most families to rely on paid childcare to juggle work and family commitments – the cost of which is a strong deterrent to having a large family.
If both parents are working, it places a greater strain on dynamics within the family. Increased work and financial pressures mean less time to connect as a couple and increased likelihood of relationship breakdown and divorce. Ask anyone and they will tell you that more flexibility at work would help both parents share the mental and parental load. However, while the numbers of hands-on dads are increasing, they still face significant discrimination.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics has found that only 5 per cent of fathers are stay at home parents. Of those, the Australian Institute of Family Studies reports that only 1 in 20 take paid parental leave, a low number even by global standards. This reflects a lack of workplace support for parental leave and part time hours for fathers, as was found by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. The government has no legislated approach to shared parental leave, so fathers are automatically regarded as secondary carers, while stay at home dads are not eligible for Paid Parental Leave if their spouse earns over $150,000 (this restriction does not apply to women whose spouse is a high income earner).
The birth rates make it evident that the current system is broken and is not compatible with a large family. Mothers can’t afford to be the stay at home parent, even if they want to be. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency has found that an increasing number of fathers want to be more hands-on, but there is a lack of policy and societal support to enable them to. And frankly, when we are all burnt out and stressed from juggling work and kids, who has the time or energy to make more?
The system needs fixing, and our leadership can start by changing the language they use and taking a more gender-inclusive policy approach.
It’s time to put a stop to the gender wars. Together we are stronger, and our children will be all the better for it.
Natasha Janssens is the founder of online educational platform, Women With Cents and the author of Wonder Woman’s Guide To Money: The busy woman’s guide to money management and wealth building, available now online and all good book stores.