Striking early childhood educators are raising issues that affect all of us. They must be supported 

Striking early childhood educators are raising issues that affect all of us. They must be supported 

With 3,000 early childhood educators set to walk off the job at 3:20pm today to protest their poverty wages, I had a strange sense of déjà vu. All the talk of the “undervaluing of women’s work” sent me digging into my archives. Let’s call it an exercise in time capsule feminism.

I dug out a press release from a decade ago, when I worked at the UK’s Equal Opportunities Commission. It warned of a ‘caring time bomb’, as poor pay and high staff turnover undermine the female-dominated caring professions.

It also pointed to new research from the EOC, which highlighted the broader costs of undervaluing women’s work and the extent to which women in many professions are treated as ‘labourers of love’ working for ‘pocket money pay’.

Oh, there are so many sexist assumptions tied up in those ideas about why women ‘choose’ to work in certain professions, the skills they bring – or even why they work in the first place. It’s hard to know where to begin. My heart sank.

The report published in the UK a decade ago was indeed prescient. Here we are ten years later in Australia, and it looks like we are reaching the end of the fuse of said time bomb. According to Helen Gibbons, the Assistant National Secretary of the United Voice Union, which represents the workers, 180 staff leave the industry each week because they simply cannot afford to stay.

And, sadly, it looks like we still have to prosecute many of the same arguments about the undervaluing of women’s work and the extent to which it contributes to the pay gap. We still have to unpick the same outdated stereotypes that fuel it. (Senator David Leyonhjelm saying childcare workers were ‘merely wiping noses and stopping kids from killing each other anyone?)

But buck op folks. While I was digging around in my feminist time capsule, I also found a press release in which the EOC called for mandatory equal pay reviews in the private sector, which came into force in the UK this year — introduced by a Conservative government! So change is possible.

With that in mind, and in the spirit of Tracey Spicer, who recently called on us all to “go back to the barricades” on equal pay, I’ll canter through the arguments to tackle the undervaluing of women’s work one more time —  for old time’s sake.  A good undervaluing women’s work argument just never goes out of style.

And I’ll add my voice and that of the team here at Women’s Agenda to others, including Miki Perkins in the Age and Caroline Overington in the Australian, who have expressed their sympathies with the workers and the issues raise.

It’s paid badly precisely because women do it

The now decade old EOC research found that one of the reasons work traditionally done by women is undervalued is precisely because it is done by women, and, therefore, closely associated with stereotypical ideas about women in caring roles. The women in these jobs  are perceived as ‘naturally’ good at the job, with insufficient investment in or recognition of their skills.

And the report highlighted that when a profession previously dominated by men, such as banking, clerical work or teaching, is opened-up to large numbers of women, the status and pay decreases. Working in a female dominated occupation is more detrimental to your pay than being a woman per se – simply being employed in a female dominated occupation can reduce your pay by as much as 9 percent.

This is the quite simple point the striking early childhood educators are trying to make. And they are right. This kind of thinking about the work that women do and the industries where they are overrepresented is a significant driver of the remaining pay gap.

Should we really put their job expertise down to some “natural’” and undervalued “innate” feminine caring capacity, rather than, say, the 18 months to 4 years they invest in gaining costly skills and qualifications?

An early childhood educator earns between $20-$23 an hour, and those with a four –year bachelor’s degree take home just $29 an hour, or $58,000 (compared to the $73,000 average income of a primary school teacher.) Fair enough?

In taking up this fight, the early childhood educators or at the forefront of a cause that could bring about significant change for women in many female dominated professions – and help dent the remaining pay gap.

Interestingly, the Minister for Women Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash, released a press release on Equal Pay Day earlier this week claiming that ‘more needs to be done’ to close the pay gap. However, her comments focused on all the Turnbull Government is doing to “get more women into work” to close the pay gap. But as Jenny Noyes of Fairfax pointed out on Twitter, what good does that do if they earn less?

Yes, we can get more women into work, and we can encourage more women into science, technology, engineering, maths and onto boards – all of which are covered off in the Equal Pay Day press release and all of which are necessary. But at the end of the day, someone has do the caring work at childcare centres, in kindergartens, in aged care facilities. There’s that pesky “caring time bomb” again.

On the issue of undervaluing women’s work, the Minister’s for Women’s Equal Pay Day press release was silent — total crickets. If you’re serious about tackling the pay gap, in my opinion, that is a serious oversight.

We have common cause on childcare

But aside from the fact that’s it’s fair and right to stand by these women who get so little for doing such vitally important skilled work, there’s another good reason to support the early childhood educators. We can fight in common cause to urge the Turnbull government to go back to first principles on childcare and demand more radical change. Let me explain.

The Turnbull Government’s recently passed childcare reforms, which will increase the cap on childcare subsidies for many families, could actually make the problem worse. In her column for the Australian, Caroline Overington pointed out that when the government increases subsidies in the hopes it will alleviate cost pressure on parents or trickle down to increase pay for the workers, it instead lines the pockets of the venture capitalists and bankers and businessmen who have entered the increasingly privatised childcare industry in droves.

She cites a 2014  AMP-Natsem report which stated: “Government subsidies help to keep a lid on families’ out of pocket child care costs, but it is hard to escape the conclusion they have also helped drive up prices…the higher prices go, the more financial assistance families will require and so the cycle continues.”

Overington and others, including former Governor General Quentin Bryce in a recent News Corp childcare campaign, have suggested we go back to first principles and consider a school like investment in childcare, with government funding it and kids getting it for free.

That would, arguably, deliver fairer pay for the workers and better outcomes for the kids. A wealth of evidence shows high quality early years education leads to better outcomes for kids well into secondary school. Sounds pretty win-win

The early childhood educators going out on strike today are forcing an important national conversation about how we value the caring work women do, whether we are serious about tacking all the drivers of the gender pay gap and what kind of childcare system we think will deliver fair pay and good results for our children.

It’s time for all of us to engage with these issues, rather than pack them away in our feminist time capsule, only to be unearthed in another ten years’ time.

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