Women and work should be a priority policy area

by 10 Nov 2007

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.

“We need to properly focus on the structures families and women need if women are going to be properly motivated to stay in the workforce as one solution to the labour squeeze.”

Heron said 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.

“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.

“But little is being done to address issues that still stand as barriers to equitable participation of women in the workforce which is why more than half of women are outside the workforce. 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.”

And, Heron added, 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.

“Paid maternity leave does not have to be a burden,” she said. “In the US, which is the only industrialised country other than Australia that does not provide paid leave for new mothers nationally, some states have begun forms of leave payments from funds that employees pay into. They recognise they need to provide an incentive for valued employees to return to work.”

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 and the US.

Australia, Heron said, 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.

“How else will we attract skilled and talented women back to their jobs?” she said. “How else will we motivate experienced women to re-enter the workforce and stay there?”

Heron said she expected the WorkChoices legislation 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.”

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