Political results will require more work
While there is consensus that something needs to be done to remove barriers to women’s participation in the labor market, including improving access to and affordability of childcare services, The reality is that implementing these policy reforms will require more analysis, consultation and time.
When it comes to child care, calls for advancing child care subsidies must first acknowledge that the sector is already under pressure. Many suppliers are struggling with labor shortages and waiting lists that cannot be met, especially in the regions. Reducing out-of-pocket child care spending for families will activate higher demand in a sector whose supply is stretched to capacity.
This leads to the risk that providers end up raising fees to deal with capacity constraints or not being able to provide the quality of service they aspire to.
From a practical perspective, the government has good economic reasons to delay increasing its child care subsidies until these immediate pressures can be addressed. This brings us back to the need to invest more in the care sector from the start, including raising the salaries of social workers to reflect their true value.
There is also scope to recalibrate childcare subsidies to better target working women whose participation in the labor market is most impeded by current parameters.
It is the women who work part-time and who want to work four or five days a week who are the most financially penalized.
Set the subsidy to neutralize marginal effective tax rates (METRs) for all working days – so that women’s labor decisions are based on their productive capacities and aspirations, not childcare costs – would be an innovative way to transform childcare from a social support measure into an economic enabler. These will be considerations for the review of the child care sector that the government is tasking the Productivity Commission to undertake.
On paid parental leave, the summit heard calls to extend current provisions to 26 weeks of paid leave, backed by mechanisms to encourage a more equal sharing of care between parents. Evidence shows that it’s the sharing mechanism that really matters for making progress on gender equality and boosting women’s participation in the workplace.
Maintaining a paid parental leave allowance for fathers is essential to encourage men to become more involved in unpaid care work and enable women to participate more fully in paid work. Rather than leaving it up to households to decide, this policy works because it breaks through the barrier of social stigma faced by men and legitimizes men’s role as caregivers.
As the government develops its paid parental leave policy, increasing the non-transferable allowance for fathers should be a priority.
With regard to the gender pay gap, the government is pursuing a series of measures that could make progress. This includes establishing gender equity as a goal of the Fair Work Act, promoting better pay in female-intensive occupations such as elder care, and initiatives aimed at tackling prejudice in the workplace, such as mandatory reporting of gender pay gaps.
In my contribution to the summit’s opening panel, I highlighted the importance of applying a gender perspective in all political decision-making, which is known as gender-responsive budgeting. This involves evaluating all policy proposals – including those that appear gender-neutral – to consider the implications for gender equality outcomes.
The government is committed to adopting gender-responsive budgeting, and we will see the impacts manifest in future budget statements.
Remember, we’re talking about people
Although we are making progress in recognizing gender inequality as an economic problem, the summit discussions talked a lot about the “underutilization of women”, as if women were a machine or a piece of equipment.
During my roundtable, I argued that the gender gaps in our economy should be interpreted as a sign that we do not fully recognize the strengths and abilities of women. It also means that we don’t fully value their contributions to the economy and society at large.
Millions of Australian women are already extensively ‘utilized’ in the economy. However, it is in low-wage, low-status sectors. Or it is in the form of unpaid care for their children and other family members. I invite business leaders to think less in terms of “use” and more in terms of “recovery”.
The women proved at the summit that they already bring immense abilities. It is time to recognize it and value it.