Up until a point, the lives of men and women living and working in Australia aren’t too different. The point at which their experiences are very likely to diverge most significantly and starkly is the arrival of a baby. And while blaming biology for this chasm is tempting, it’s lazy. And wrong.
Other nations have achieved a much narrower gap between mothers and fathers when it comes to time spent caring, to parental leave taken, to income earned, to hours worked – and they haven’t done it by eradicating biology.
They have intentionally pursued evidence-based policies that value caring and create conditions that enable parents – not just mothers – to balance caring responsibilities with paid work. The benefits in child development outcomes, economic growth and gender equality are profound.
A 2020 UNICEF report analysing child well-being ranked Australia 32nd among OECD and EU countries and found we are “falling short in delivering consistently good health, education and social outcomes for children”. The price Australia pays for not providing the requisite early support to children and families, or late intervention, is estimated at $15 billion annually.
Among OECD nations Australia has one of the least adequate statutory paid parental leave programs. The OECD average is more than 50 weeks of paid leave while Australians receive 18 weeks at the minimum wage. Less than 50% of the largest employers in Australia offer any paid parental leave. Australian men take less than 20 per cent of the paternity leave days of their global peers.
Paid parental leave is beneficial for children, parents, government, workplaces and the economy. It is also recognised as one of very policy tools available to governments to directly influence behaviour among parents because it impacts the start of a child’s life and sets up a pattern for parental involvement that persists.
Inadequate paid parental leave explains why after the arrival of a baby, notwithstanding a desire among many new parents to establish equitable caring patterns, Australian men typically work – and earn – more than before.
They’re not expected or supported to share the care and thus focus on breadwinning. Too many fathers and children miss out on the associated benefits that flow from greater parental engagement.
Conversely, after having a baby women in Australia tend to reduce their work significantly and rarely, if ever, return to working and earning in the way they did before children. Many mothers miss out on achieving financial security as a result of being unable to maintain attachment to the paid workforce. Australia’s curiously low female workforce participation rate reflects this.
Prohibitively expensive early childhood education and care is another problem. Once new parents have navigated short and inadequate paid parental leave, should both parents wish to return to work, they then face the fourth most expensive out of pocket fees for early childhood education and care in the world.
At that point they’ll also find themselves at the mercy of a taxation system that means ‘secondary’ earners, in most cases women, face an effective marginal tax rate upwards of 90% when ECEC fees are considered. For a large cohort of women, there is – literally – no financial gain for working beyond three days a week and others pay to work additional days.
Unsurprisingly, lots of women don’t and they sacrifice career progression and financial security as a result. The persistent lack of representation of women in senior leadership roles across the breadth of sectors, industries and workplaces around Australia is an inevitable consequence.
For parents who remain working, discrimination against them is prolific; one in two Australian women report facing discrimination either during pregnancy, parental leave or their return to work. Workplaces that value and support parenting remain rare.
What Australian mums ‘choose’ when it comes to work must be considered within this context. For some mums and families the idea of both parents working isn’t desirable. But for lots of families mums “choose” to step back because they cannot make working, work.
Mums in other countries are better able to combine work and care as a result of progressive policies specifically pursued to support them and ensure a more equitable division of paid and unpaid labour.
The combination of short and inadequate parental leave and prohibitively expensive ECEC also means Australian remain firmly wedded to stereotypical gender roles, men as earners women as homemakers, because that’s the arrangement that prevails.
But that arrangement doesn’t prevail because it’s optimal. It persists because that’s what current policy settings support. Australia’s current policy settings prevent families and children from thriving, they hamper efforts to reduce inequality and act as a handbrake on Australia’s economic growth and future prosperity.
By the age of 5, 90% of a child’s brain is fully developed so what happens in the early years of a child’s life is richly formative. Children fare best when they are well nourished, responsively cared for with access to learning opportunities from birth onwards, and are protected from disease, violence and stress.
There are around 2.6 million families with dependent children aged under 15 in Australia. Ultimately parents and carers want to give children the best start in life, but they can’t do that alone.
Successful early childhood development policies focus on equipping families with the time, resources, knowledge, and skills to provide that nurturing care. Australia is falling short in the support and resources offered to assist families to deliver that care.
New economic modelling commissioned by The Parenthood, being launched in Canberra by Zali Steggall on Monday, demonstrates the considerable financial benefit associated with pursuing a strategic approach to best practice policies that affect the parenting experience.
The report estimates that the cumulative impact of reforming early childhood education and care (ECEC) and paid parental leave (PPL) to bring Australia into line with comparable nations could increase GDP by 4.1 per cent in 2050 or $166 billion. If Australia could lift female participation to that of males, it would increase GDP by 8.7 per cent or $353 billion by 2050.
Australia could be a country in which all parents have the support, resources and time to give their children the best start in life, including adequate PPL that enables all parents to bond with their child and learn how to care in that critical first year.
Australia could be a country in which all children can access quality ECEC regardless of where they live or what their parents earn.
Australia could be a country in which mothers and fathers have access to the support they need to maintain their mental and physical health.
Australia could be a country in which men and women enjoy equal opportunities to share the care and participate in paid work in a manner that suits their needs.
Australia could be a country that reduces the gender gap in pay, workforce participation and leadership positions.
Australia could be a nation in which workplaces don’t just tolerate caring and carers but actively accommodate them.
Australia could be a country in which families are more likely to thrive than just survive. And that nation would deliver rich social and economics rewards.
Making Australia the best place in the world to be a parent sets out blueprint for a first-of-its-kind Australian National Parenting Strategy: a coordinated framework of best practice evidence-based policies aimed at enabling parents and children to thrive in the critical early years.
The solutions are straightforward and compelling but to bring that to life we need leaders to recognise the case for change and take action to put parents, families and children first.
In reimagining the policies affecting families, the report’s recommendations value the role and function of parents and recognises how they will shape the next generation. The proposed policy approaches have far-reaching implications for mums, dads, grandparents, carers, employers, early educators and more – with the capacity to positively and profoundly affect child development, decrease inequality and increase productivity and well being in Australia.
It is time to prioritise support for parents and children as a critical investment in Australia’s future.
If you’re on board, consider signing the petition calling on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to do better for Australian parents and children.
Georgie Dent is the Executive Director of The Parenthood, an independent, not-for-profit advocacy group that represents 68,000 parents, carers and supporters around Australia.