Australia loads the dice against working mothers

Anne Summers

To PM: Mums will and do want to work

Dear Mr Howard,

Now that you have decided to take advice on the subject of combining work and family from a British feminist and from other newspaper columnists, I thought I'd chance my arm to see if you might even listen to me.

You've been "very impressed", you said recently, "with some research conducted by Catherine Hakim at the London School of Economics [who has] identified effectively three groups of women with children women who are career-centred, women who are home-centred, and the rest comprising about 60 per cent who are trying to achieve a balance between the two".

I would have thought this was a statement of the bleeding obvious, but if it takes an English woman to get you focused on what Australian feminists have been arguing for years, so be it. Just one point of clarification, though. The different categories Hakim identifies are not necessarily different women. Many, perhaps most women who have children, will have experienced all three phases, having gone from being utterly career-focused when young, to being totally home-centred when their child is an infant, to the hell of juggling work, kids and everything else once they decide to go back to work. As most women do, eventually. You have also said that in this area the government's role is "to support the choice that individual parents make, because in the end it's parents who should decide the caring arrangements of their young children".

If you are serious about this then you will need to recognise that at present parents' choices are distorted by the ideological biases built into your government's family assistance policy.

Policy is loaded against women who want to combine work and family. These are the majority of Hakim's 60 per cent but your government treats them like an ill-informed minority. And they are suffering as a result.

They are also insulted by the constant chiacking they get from the squad of conservative female columnists in this and other national newspapers - the likes of Bettina Arndt, Angela Shanahan and Janet Albrechtsen who seem to be desperate for all women to stay at home. You have quoted some of these women, sending a signal to the struggling working mums that their Prime Minister actually disapproves of them. And your government loads the dice against working mothers.

Let's look at two families each earning $70,000, one via a single income, the other via two working parents. Once all taxes, benefits and the cost of child care are taken into account, the two-income family, the one where the wife works, is $2400 a year worse off than the family where the wife stays home.

In addition, families with stay at home mothers receive considerable non-means tested tax benefits, whereas families where the mother works more than a few hours a week are treated to the punitive regime created for welfare recipients in this country. Yours is a government that in most instances abhors so-called "middle-class welfare". Yet when it comes to providing inducements for women to leave the workforce and stay home with their babies, the government digs deep.

The awkwardly named Family Tax Benefit Part B is paid to families where the mother stays home full-time or works just a few hours. The primary earner's (read husband's) income is not taken into account in determining who can get this payment of $2836.05 a year for children under 5, and $1978.30 for kids aged 5 to 15 years. The mother can earn up to $11,206 a year and still receive some level of benefit for an under five-year-old. The husband can earn millions and it does not affect the payment.

On the other hand, a mother who works and wants to use child care will find her choices totally circumscribed if she earns more than a pittance. The government pays a child-care benefit of $133 a week (against an average cost for full-time care of as much as $300 a child a week). Yet even this minimal subsidy towards the cost of care starts to cut out once a family has a combined income of just $30,806 a year. That's less than average weekly earnings. If you really want individuals to have a choice, policy must become neutral and not force women towards options that match your own personal preferences.

This will mean abandoning your new 'baby', the Baby Bonus, that is designed to persuade women to stay at home for five years. This will invariably mean women lose their employment and even social skills and will find it much harder to ever go back to work.

You are going to have to similarly reverse policies on workplace conditions, in particular your 1996 industrial relations legislation that restricted the power of the Industrial Relations Commission to regulate part-time and casual employment.

As a consequence, part-time and casual work are in a policy limbo, where conditions and pay and other entitlements are not monitored and, almost certainly as a direct result, have all declined. The impact of this is felt mostly by women working part-time because they have children.

Australia has the second highest proportion of women in part-time work in the OECD. Women hold 72 per cent of all part-time jobs and it is a growing sector. Forty per cent of women are in part-time jobs compared with just 13 per cent of men. And not all of them work part-time by choice.

Your Australian Bureau of Statistics says that 430,000 of these women would prefer to work additional hours. Many would like full-time jobs but these days a full-time job requires as much as 42 hours in attendance. The old 35-hour week has gone the way of button-up boots and women, especially women with kids, are suffering because of it.

It is a great shame that back in 1997 you got rid of the Women's Bureau, established by your political mentor, Sir Robert Menzies, in 1963 with the brief of advising government how to make it easier for women in the workforce.

Research by Dr Bruce Chapman from the Australian National University and others has shown that a woman with average education who has a child will have lifetime earnings totalling $160,000 less than a woman who does not.

We ask women to pay a substantial life-long price for having children and wonder why the birthrate is falling. You need to make it much easier for women.

Paid maternity leave is just the start of it. Women also need cheaper child care and workplace conditions that acknowledge their family responsibilities. And having the government recognise them as well would be a big improvement.

Mr Howard, instead of pretending that most mothers do not work, why don't you give the vast majority who do a fair go? It's long overdue.

Anne Summers, AO, is, among much else, a former chief advisor for women's issues to former Australian Prime Ministers' Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and the author of several books, including the best selling and now classic Damned Whores and God's Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia (Penguin) and Ducks on the Pond: An Autobiography 1945-1976 (Viking, 1999). Having been continuously in print since 1975, Damned Whores was republished in March 2002 with new material, including a very useful 'Time Line of Achievements for and by women in Australia 1788-2001'. Anne writes a regular opinion column for the Sydney Morning Herald, where this article first appeared on 12 August 2002. The column has been reproduced with the kind permission of the author, who retains all © copyright privileges in the work, which is not to be reproduced without explicit permission. Image courtesy ICMI.

Also on the Evatt site: