How Australia missed the point about stay-at-home mums being a drain on the economy

How Australia completely missed the point about “women as a drain on the economy”.

Last week, apparently, the OECD published a “provocative report” claiming “stay at home mums are a drain on the economy”, imploring them to return to work.

That’s not what the report actually said, but you could be forgiven for thinking that way after the headlines that popped up on Friday.

Media outlets of all ideological persuasions, ranging from to Fairfax lined up editorials from aggrieved stay at home mums, who offered a passionate defence of the important role they play in society. Media pundits lined-up to debate the ‘controversial’ findings on breakfast TV panels.

Firstly, mums who stay home and look after their children do make a valuable contribution. Women contribute $345 billion in unpaid childcare work every year, according to a report from PwC titled Understanding the Unpaid Economy.

But the problem is this: the OECD report wasn’t about stay at home mums or their ‘value’.

The report was about women’s ‘workforce participation rates’. It wasn’t about women who choose not to work. It was about women with children who want to work and the barriers they face.

(It was also, incidentally, about other groups who face barriers to employment, including people with disabilities, indigenous Australians. But, alas, they did not get their moment on breakfast TV.)

Don’t blame the OECD for the misunderstanding. Their press release bore the rather unsexy headline: Australia should help more women and other underemployed groups into work.

Yes, “women’s workforce participation” rates might sound beige. It certainly doesn’t make for good headline fodder compared to the hysterical suggestion that Australia ought to ‘force’ mums back to work.

The way this report was covered says a lot about the state of the debate in this country around this issue and related issues that underpin it: discrimination, including pregnancy discrimination, unequal pay, affordable childcare, limited parental leave and flexible work.

It’s a pity many who commented on the report didn’t bother to read it, connect it to an ongoing public policy debate and help further a much-needed sensible discussion.

And this isn’t an isolated incident. Though credit where credit due, some like Lisa Wilkinson of Channel 9’s Today Show and Greg Jericho of The Guardian did their very best. The debate around these issues in Australia is stymied.

By way of contrast, column inches are devoted to housing affordability. The Australian public has been provided extensive analysis from experts on the relative merits of increased supply, shared ownership schemes and changes to the tax code, including negative gearing and capital gain concessions. But could the media consuming public debate women’s workforce participation rates with the same fluency?

Ahead of the next budget, the Prime Minister is said to be keen to pivot toward cost of living issues that affect working families in the hip pocket. Women’s workforce participation rates anyone?

With that in mind, I’ll give it a go: Why we should care about ‘women’s workforce participation rates’, as told by someone who cares a lot about ‘women’s workforce participation rates’. Yes, this keeps me up at night. I subject my husband, family and friends to my thoughts on the subject on a regular basis. It’s quite the interesting topic, really. Some creative genius out there – not me – can surely write a sexy headline about it.

This is not the first time the issue has made news in recent years. In November 2014, G20 leaders, under Australia’s presidency, pledged to work towards reducing the gender gap in workforce participation by 25 per cent by 2025.

The issue had been on the radar of our leaders and policy makers for some time. Study after study (by organizations such as the Grattan Institute, Goldman Sachs) produced modelling that demonstrated the benefits to the overall economy of getting more women into work, especially full-time work.

For example, if Australian women did as much paid work as women in Canada – adding an extra 6 per cent of women in the workforce – Australia’s GDP would be about $25 billion higher, the Grattan Institute reported in 2012.

But, Australian leaders were, I hope, not just motivated by the obvious economic advantages. They were also aware of the country’s considerable backward slide in the global gender equality rankings.

According to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report published in October 2016, Australia fell from 15 in 2006 to number 46 in 2016. Australian women’s low workforce participation rates were cited as one of the key drivers behind Australia’s dramatic slip in just ten years.

Against this backdrop, last week’s OECD report was yet another important contribution to an ongoing debate on a matter of great importance, not only to individual women whose career prospects are thwarted by the barriers highlighted in the report, but to all of Australia, since we all pay the price.

And to describe it as ‘controversial’ when a liberal government led by Tony Abbott no less had already led the international community in addressing the issues highlighted in the report was a bit of a stretch.

So instead of whinging about the erroneous suggestion that the OECD has it out for stay at home mums, we might have responded to the publication of this report by making one of the following points instead.

Lack of affordable childcare and access to parental leave are some of the key barriers noted in the report. The government’s omnibus savings bill is still on the table, though it is unlikely to pass. It proposes significant changes to parental leave and childcare subsidies, all in the name of making it ‘fairer’. The whole plan, frankly, is pants.

Firstly, the Productivity Commission released the results of the Childcare and Early Learning Public Inquiry in 2015. It said the ‘current arrangements are complex and costly to administer and difficult for parents and providers to navigate”. Here we are two years later. After two years of deliberation, are the proposals in the omnibus bill really the best we can do?

Lots of modelling has been done about who are the winners and losers in various complicated scenarios. But by my estimation, the argument is pretty simple. If we go ahead with the current proposals, we’ll all lose out.

The changes aren’t radical enough and go nowhere near addressing the barriers to high quality affordable childcare and parental leave that keep mums out of work. Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said so in remarks to a recent Senate inquiry on the bill. And on that basis the Human Rights Commission rejected it. I don’t recall reading anything about this rejection in the media, which, I think was certainly newsworthy.

Radical change is needed, and possible. In Germany, for example, Conservative and Centre Left politicians were so driven by the individual and collective price of low workforce participation rates that they took bi partisan action. In just a decade, Germany transformed its approach to childcare from one that assumed children were best off at home with mum, to the polar opposite.

In 2013, Germany declared that every child over the age of 1 has the legal right to a space in a public daycare facility. This past fall, Germany’s highest court took this mandate one step further. It ruled that parents may sue for lost wages if they can’t find a place for their child in a public daycare centre.

Might we explore more substantive change here in Australia, rather than just nibble around the edges or devote all our time and resources to defending the insufficient status quo? On that note, Kate Ellis, who also last week announced she’ll retire from politics to be closer to her young son, will be sorely missed. She suggested this in a recent address to the National Press Club.

Next up, we might ask for an update from the Minister for Women, the Hon Michaelia Cash and the Office for Women in the Prime Minister’s Department, who have carriage for implementing the G20 Commitment. There seems to be a lack of transparency or a lack of a coordinated plan across government to address the issue. The 2015 Intergenerational Report suggested Australia is 40 years off meeting the goal. Is that good enough?

In the UK, the government commissioned a bi-partisan Women and Work Commission to drive change in this area. The report, published in 2008, paved the way for new rules on pay transparency for businesses with more than 250 employees, the extension of the right to request flexible work to all and shared parental leave. Is it time for an Australian style Women and Work Commission?

These are just two of the questions we might have looked at in response to the OECD report, rather than the ‘value’ of stay at home mums. Maybe one day the Australian media consuming public will get the kind of analysis they deserve on this issue.

Being able to balance work and family, I suspect, weighs just as heavily on the minds of Australian families as being able to afford a home. One thing is for sure. Last week, Australian women and, well all of us, were let down.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox