WOMEN IN the workforce should be a priority policy debate leading up to the federal election, according to Susan Heron, CEO of the Australian Institute of Management, Victoria and Tasmania.
“Every business I know of is struggling with the skills shortage but there is no meaningful focus on the obstacles that amount to disincentives for women with children to pursue careers,” she said.
“Politicians and senior business leaders fail to understand today’s families now face significant financial impacts as a consequence of deciding to have children. The investment begins with housing and childcare and continues through to increasingly daunting tertiary education costs.
Australia lags behind most comparable countries, including the UK, Canada, New Zealand and France in shaping workplace policies that deliver incentives and institutional support to allow women to combine work and motherhood, according to Heron.
“We all understand that Australia needs to increase the size of its workforce and the Federal Government is taking steps to move people – including, I assume, many single young mothers – from welfare to work.
“Comprehensive, accessible and affordable childcare, the closure of the gap between women’s and men’s average hourly earnings, and more flexible hours in the workplace and in institutions such as schools which are pivotal to how working mothers organise their day should be addressed in detail.”
If women can be paid money to give birth, in the form of the so-called “baby bonus”, the issue of paid maternity leave must also be re-examined, Heron said.
A 2005 HarvardUniversity study found that 163 out of 168 nations had some form of paid maternity leave. Those missing out included Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, the US and Australia.
Australia needs to more vigorously study and debate the options and solutions other nations have adopted, as they seek answers to their own labour shortages and population challenges, Heron said.
Heron expected WorkChoices to compound difficulties for many women if employers negotiated-down flexible working hours and job-share arrangements.
“I would doubt sensible employers would go down this path, but some will,” she said. “The biggest impact will be on female workers already struggling at the lower end of the pay scale and facing real difficulties maintaining a steady income while managing childcare commitments.”