Leigh Hopkinson

Leigh Hopkinson lives in Barkers Creek with her partner and their two-year-old son. A journalist and editor, she primarily writes about issues of social justice. Her work has appeared in publications including Overland, Kill Your Darlings and the Guardian. She is currently working on her second book.​

Returning to work: why affordable childcare and flexible working conditions are needed to redress the gender pay gap in Australia

This blog is part of our Expert Commentary series, bringing you insights into some of the unspoken challenges women face in the workplace, from experts with lived experience. The series explores a range of topics and perspectives to highlight the ways inclusive and compassionate leadership practices can benefit everyone.

I returned to work part-time when my son was one. My partner and I co-parent: we’re both freelance writers who live off the grid in regional Victoria. We’re classified low-income earners, so the government’s childcare subsidy – which is means tested – covers 85 per cent of our costs. For us, Australia’s childcare system works. But we’re not the norm.

Recent research by education advocate The Front Project found that, for 52 per cent of parents with kids in childcare, the system is ‘hardly working’. Despite the apparent array of options, parents felt they had little genuine choice once affordability, lack of available places and lack of accord with their beliefs or values were factored in.

Australia has the fourth most expensive childcare system in the world, with 30 per cent of families spending more than a quarter of household income on childcare (the OECD average is 11 per cent). And it’s women who are most financially disadvantaged as a result.

Childcare subsidies are capped at $10,560 per year per child (although this may change under proposed reforms). That means there’s a point where it becomes financially unviable for the second income earner in a household – usually a woman – to work more than three days per week. The Grattan Institute has shown that the Workforce Disincentive Rate – the proportion of income lost through higher taxes, reduced family payments and childcare costs – is particularly punishing for second earners thinking of taking on a fourth or fifth day of work. By the fifth day, some are effectively paying to go to work.

Not surprisingly, this has led to the ‘1.5 earner model’ – where dad works full-time and mum part-time – becoming the norm.

This in turn contributes to ‘the mothering penalty’: less workforce participation by women, fewer opportunities for leadership roles, training and career advancement, and less pay and lower superannuation long-term.

It decreases a woman with kids’ earning capacity, leading to a greater income gap between women with kids and those without than the gender pay rate gap. And it has led to repeated calls for Australia’s childcare system to be overhauled.

The calls are gaining traction. The cost of childcare has been highlighted as a potential key decider in the next federal election, with the Morrison government announcing changes to subsidies in its May budget (these won’t come into effect until mid-2022 and will only make a difference for approximately one quarter of childcare users). The changes come on the back of Labor’s calls for the subsidy cap to be scrapped entirely.

Structural reform is needed to enable greater workforce participation by women – and there’s research to support its viability. While childcare subsidies cost the Federal Government more than $8 billion per year, modelling by the Grattan Institute indicates that, by increasing the contribution by $5 billion annually, workforce participation by women will increase the GDP by $11 billion over five-to-ten years, more than paying for itself.

While affordable childcare is essential to increased participation, so too are flexible working conditions, such as personalised start and finish times, job sharing and working remotely.

There are systems in place to support this: under The Fair Work Act, most employees are legally entitled to request flexible conditions if they have been with their employer for more than 12 months and are actively parenting or a carer.

In fact, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, almost 70 per cent of private sector companies had a flexible workplace strategy in place in 2017–18. However, only 1.6 per cent of all industries had targets set for men’s engagement in flexible work. This suggests a distinction between meeting basic legal requirements, and a workplace culture that normalises flexible options, particularly for men.

It’s also in keeping with what Annabel Crabb found in her Quarterly Essay ‘Men at Work’: that societal norms, workplace pressure and inadequate financial support prevent men who would like to more actively parent from doing so. Similarly, research from the University of Sydney found that, 10 years after the establishment of Australia’s Paid Parental Leave Scheme, men are largely locked out of shared care. This is because the minimum wage paid by the scheme is a disincentive (it equates to 42 per cent of the average Australia wage), because secondary carers are only given two weeks leave and because until 2020 parents could not split the 18-week ‘primary carer’ entitlement.

Prue Gilbert, chief executive of the workplace gender equality consultancy Grace Papers, said this research showed that leaders needed to accelerate gender equality by ensuring workplace cultures permitted fathers to use flexibility.

For those employers who fear a decrease in output, a clear link has been found between flexible work and employee engagement, productivity, retention and well-being – across all ages and genders.

This suggests the problem is as much about redressing out-dated social norms as it is about creating structural solutions.

As a society, we still see women as the primary carers and we still don’t value work that has traditionally been carried out by women as equal to men’s work. Until we acknowledge these biases and adjust policies and workplace cultures accordingly, we will continue to disadvantage everyone.

Part of the reason why my partner is so comfortable co-parenting is because his mother was the breadwinner and his father the homemaker. This has led to him normalising gender role reversals, valuing child raising and insisting upon his right to flexible working conditions. And it has made it possible for me to prioritise my career.

For us, the ever-shifting work-life balance has found a happy medium.

Of course, what our family and work lives look like will change over time, as will everyone else’s. That’s why there must be structures in place that support the myriad of different work-life combinations of Australians, that don’t prevent women from working full-time and men from child raising.

There’s no doubt COVID-19 has radically transformed the way we work in Australia, especially when it comes to working remotely. In this new era, we must keep challenging out-dated norms and fighting for childcare initiatives and flexible working conditions that promote gender equality – changes that will ultimately benefit us all.


By Leigh Hopkinson

Leigh Hopkinson lives in Barkers Creek with her partner and their two-year-old son. A journalist and editor, she primarily writes about issues of social justice. Her work has appeared in publications including Overland, Kill Your Darlings and the Guardian. She is currently working on her second book.​


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