They rush to drop children at childcare at 7:30am, then ignore their baby’s tears as they speed away to find a carparking spot at the station, so they’ll be at their desk on time. Then they do it all again later on, in reverse, and with an elevated level of stress, to make it before the doors lock at 6pm and the late fines kick in. As if $140 a day wasn’t enough.
Others linger around public libraries, playgrounds, cafes, at school pick up – making polite conversation but with that distant, sad look in their eyes. The look that says “I love my children, but I wish I was at work. I wish I was doing something that I spent five years at uni to learn, but now that I have more than one child, I can’t afford childcare”.
They are our qualified women. Engineers, lawyers, nurses, teachers, economists, accountants, architects, analysts and a wide array of other professionals who we, as a nation, have heavily subsidised so that they can receive a higher education and make a valued contribution to our society.
We have invested a fortune in them. We have told them since they were little girls that they can achieve anything in life. But after they become mothers, they discover the cruel truth: the system is rigged against them.
We all know these women. Many of us are these women – the Forgotten Women of Australia.
The greatest underutilised resource in our economy is mothers in their childbearing years. Many choose not to return to work after having children – a perfectly legitimate choice. But many, many more do not have a choice: they can’t return to work, or not full-time, because they can’t afford to. And those that do return to work exist in a torturous state of stress and sleep deprivation, and where all but $50 of their weekly income goes towards childcare fees.
The Forgotten Women of Australia are not rich. They are educated, modest middle-income workers, ineligible for assistance from Centrelink (beyond the childcare rebate), under attack from cost of living pressures and victims of bracket creep. They often don’t have any support from family, because they’ve migrated from overseas or are from interstate, or their parents are elderly or deceased.
According to the Grattan Institute, if Australia had the same level of working mothers as Canada, an increase of just 6%, there’d be a $20 billion boost to our economy. We’d dramatically lift the nation’s productivity (without a shred of industrial unrest) and significantly increase the amount of HECS debt that is repaid to the government. Rivers of revenue gold! And we’d be harnessing a massive cohort of educated women, whose contributions to innovation, research, healthcare, education, management, leadership and myriad fields of endeavour would benefit the entire nation.
The solution is surprisingly simple: if childcare was tax deductible for working parents – sensibly capped and coupled with subsidies for low-income earners – childcare would be more affordable and more educated mothers would work, and for longer hours.
Some Forgotten Women of Australia are fighting back where they can. They are the fastest growing demographic of start-up founders and small business operators. They are creating businesses at home, around their families, collaborating with other Forgotten Women, to harness their collective brilliance and make a valued contribution to our nation. They are embracing the power of social media to connect and inspire change.
But it’s nowhere near enough. Systemic failure must no longer be shuffled off into the “too hard basket”. A Productivity Commission inquiry into women in the workforce would be an appropriate, credible vehicle for examining all the issues (including the gender pay gap and women retiring into poverty) – bringing together all relevant modelling and data. And it would debunk the emotive, class warfare nonsense that has dominated the political debate about tax deductible childcare.
We urgently need national leadership and a wholistic approach, so that our nation’s most valuable untapped asset – its clever mums – will no longer be forgotten.
(This article was first published in Women’s Agenda in July 2017.)