|Issue No 87||10 March 2001|
Seven Steps to Slavation
Extraced from Party Girls (Pluto Press, 2000)
Jenny Macklin details the seven barriers that stand between women and a better working life.
If somebody told you that the tables were about to be turned and that tomorrow's labour market would deliver more opportunities for women, would you believe them? Probably not. You might agree that women will get a greater share of new jobs but you would also say that these are probably going to be part-time, lower-paid jobs and because of the cost of childcare many women couldn't afford to take them.
You may agree that girls are doing better at high school but would qualify that by showing just how few women sit on the seats of boardrooms and you would say, 'Look how far we have to go.' When told that women's wages are actually growing faster than men's you would point to the fact that women still earn 80 per cent of what men do and that a majority of people dependent on social security for their main source of income are still women.
You would point to all these traditional examples of inequality and you would be right�women do have a long way to go to achieve equality. But if you ignored the relatively recent and dramatic shift in favour of women in the economy you would be missing a crucial point and what is emerging as a major opportunity for women. At the moment there are many barriers to women achieving a better working life. But the opportunity is there to turn the tables if we can take it.
As the economy is demanding and rewarding the skills that women have on a scale never seen before, a new opportunity is emerging for women to shape the world of work. As women exit university and TAFE with better qualifications, gain a greater share of new jobs, experience faster wages growth, start their own companies and move into management positions in existing companies�women have a capacity to shape the world of work they way they want it.
The opportunity exists for women to build the bargaining power needed to redefine the balance between work and family. Can we imagine a woman with a job that let her visit her young children three times a day at the childcare centre? What if there was a place at work where she could bring sick children? What would a job look like that allowed her to work three-quarters of a week and share her job for the remaining quarter? What would a job look like that allowed her to exchange her long service leave entitlement for study leave? What would a job look like that provided six months paid parental leave that could be shared between parents?
The workplaces that offer workers these deals will prosper in the future. Women will want to work in them. Men will too. We all want a more balanced life. One of the greatest complaints by workers is that they are working longer and harder and have less time to spend with their families. The pace of modern life is relentless. If women can build workplaces that provide all workers with more family time we will all benefit.
Many women want to redefine work and family, to set new measures of success: where getting ahead is about doing the job rather than how many hours you spend at work; where family-friendly policies are supported because employers understand that they boost worker productivity. Women's marked and continuing participation, including mothers of young children (55.9 per cent of married women in the labour force have children under 15 years old), are driving the need for reform. For too long, equality in the workplace has been about achieving what men have. The assumption behind this is that what men have is worth having. We can be more ambitious than that. We can strive for something better, because ultimately we all benefit. What men have and the way they have it is predicated on the almost absolute separation of work and family. Men who work long and laborious hours can only do so because someone else if looking after the children. Women who don't work often can't because there is no one else to look after the children.
It has been so for as long as we can remember, and over the years the best we have been able to do is to bridge the divide between home and work by introducing formal childcare. The growth of part-time work has helped but the tax and social security penalties are often so harsh as to render extra work worthless. We talk a lot about family-friendly industrial relations policies but they remain a rarity, with just one in ten enterprise bargaining agreements containing a family-friendly measure. In the give and take between work and family, women have given it all and work has taken, leaving many women leading two separate lives�one at work and another at home and fast becoming exhausted in the process. But is this really all about to change? Are women guaranteed a brighter future? Is it possible that the coming decades will be ones where women enjoy a fairer share of the gains that the new economy provides?
There is no doubt that women will continue to gain a greater share of new jobs and that industries where women have traditionally worked will grow faster. But whether or not women turn this new opportunity into a force for better-balanced working lives depends on women overcoming many barriers. And whether or not the benefits flow through to all women, and not just those working in higher-skilled jobs, will depend on the ability of women to organise across many workplaces and not just a few, and on governments responding in very different ways from now.
What stands between women and this brighter working future? I have narrowed it down to seven barriers�the seven barriers that stand between women and a better working life. If women can make progress in these seven areas over the next decade, we may well redefine the relationship between work and family and ensure that the benefits extend to all women and, indeed, to many more men.
Number 1: lack of affordable, quality childcare
The cost of childcare has increased dramatically under the current Government while government childcare assistance has remained frozen in time. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report, Australia's Welfare 1999, noted that Commonwealth Government expenditure on childcare has fallen 10 per cent since 1996. Forced to pay the difference, many families have simply had to reduce the number of days their children spend in childcare by cutting back at work. This phenomenon was noted at the 1998 Senate Inquiry into Childcare Funding, which found that the increased costs associated with the Government's cutbacks had forced many women to withdraw from the paid workforce or reduce their working hours. Australian families are finding it increasingly difficult to afford the quality childcare provided by the long-day-care sector. Action is needed to increase the affordability of childcare. Workers also need to be encouraged to bargain for childcare when they are negotiating enterprise agreements. A few good examples of workplaces that are taking the lead in childcare are what we need.
This is not just about enabling parents to work; it is also about providing children with the best start in life. Increasingly parents will demand childcare that has an educational component as we learn more about the long-term benefits of an early education. Studies repeatedly show that children who have early access to education and a learning environment perform better throughout the school years. For example, the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) Early Childhood Study (1995) and the National Institute of Child Health Development study (1998) in the United States indicate that quality childcare provides opportunities for early education, which in turn enhances children's cognitive, social and emotional development.
Number 2: lack of family-friendly enterprise bargain
Women's disadvantage in the labour market centres on the failure to find ways to combine work with caring for children, particularly very young children. For most women the birth of a child requires time off work, often up to two or three years, without pay. But more than this, it can also mean greater difficulties getting back into the workforce and lower earnings as a result of time spent off the career ladder. Paid parental leave is still a rarity. For many families the birth of a child means a significant loss of income. For families that cannot afford the loss, many mothers are forced back to work before they are really ready, while relatives care for children. This creates major disruptions to family life, as work is often irregular and low paid, with tax and social security clawbacks reducing wages often by more than 50 per cent.
Women should be encouraged to bargain for paid parental leave or, if that is unavailable, unpaid parental leave with the guarantee of re-entry at the same level. For women seeking a gradual re-entry to the workforce, options to start back part-time should be explored. Women should also explore taking a portion of future salary as paid parental leave. We need more flexibility in income. Governments should also look at ways of giving families the option to take future family allowances up front. This would provide low- and middle-income families with the extra financial resources needed for one parent to stay at home for at least the first two years of a child's life. If the Government can find ways to introduce such flexibility, employers should be encouraged to as well.
We need a new approach to negotiating and promoting enterprise bargaining agreements that are family friendly and new incentives for the companies and unions that are leading the way in delivering them. The Federal Government could play a role here in finding appropriate ways to reward these companies, including financial rewards.
Number 3: lack of financial reward from working
Women workers in low- and middle-income families are often paying the highest tax rates in Australia! The interaction of the tax and social security systems mean that many women lose more than half of what they earn in tax and social security clawbacks. This can reduce the incentive to work for many and, where childcare costs are involved, women can find they actually go backwards when they go back to work.
For example, a sole parent with two children who is earning $30,000 is currently paying 85.5 cents in every extra dollar she earns in tax�50 cents in family payment, 34 cents in income tax and 1.5 cents in Medicare Levy. If she also has a dependent child on Youth Allowance she would be losing another 25 cents�pushing her effective marginal tax rate to 110.5 per cent. Thus, she gives back more to the Federal Government than every extra dollar she earns. These effective marginal tax rates also exist for low-income families where both parents work. It is not unusual for a woman in a low-income family to return to increase her hours of work from five to 35 only to discover her income rises by just $12 a week. This woman is effectively working for 40 cents an hour.
We need new ways of making work worthwhile for women. Labor's tax credit is one example of how it can be done. By reducing the tax taken out of women's pay when they return to work or when they increase their hours, the tax credit can dramatically increase take-home pay. It can mean the difference between losing 80c of every extra dollar you earn and losing less than 50c. It particularly helps women in very low-income families and sole parents when they return to work. Even if they are just starting with a few hours a week, the tax credit can cut their tax bill.
The tax credit and family allowance policy that Labor took to the last federal election would have reduced effective marginal tax rates significantly for many families. A sole-parent family earning $30,000 would have received an additional $3000 in tax credit and more in extra family allowance, reducing their effective marginal tax from 85.5 per cent to 55.5 per cent. Instead of a two-income family incurring an additional tax penalty when the woman returns to work, the tax credit would make these families clearly better off. For example, a woman returning to work earning $5000 where the husband earns $20,000 would collect an extra $500 in tax credit, bringing the family's total tax credit to $2500. They would also keep more of their family allowance than would otherwise be the case. It is a very important innovation in the tax and social security system and would have really reduced the poverty traps faced by many women.
Number 4: lack of return-to-work programs for women
Overcoming the financial penalties many women currently face in returning to work is only one half of the story. Even without these penalties many women are unable to take advantage of new work opportunities because they simply do not have the skills to get jobs. It is a reality of today's labour market that the best jobs go to those with qualifications. Because child-rearing involves time out of the workforce and time out of study, many women can find the return to work after five or more years extremely difficult.
We need to think of ways to combine welfare receipt with skills education, particularly for women with no post-school qualifications. Information technology opens up the possibilities of studying in the home and we need to think of ways to bring skills and training to women rather than operating simply through classrooms.
The Jobs, Education and Training (JET) Program started to build this bridge in the 1980s. JET has been successful in helping sole parents enter the paid workforce, with one in five participants getting a job. However, cuts to the program are reducing its impact and little over half of the budget allocated for pre-vocational courses was actually spent in 1998-99, forcing a departmental review into the underspend. In addition, just 54,000 mothers were interviewed by JET advisers at Centrelink out of a total population of over 300,000 eligible women.
Evidence from the United States shows clearly that having a variety of labour market programs achieves more successful outcomes with women. Not only are women who have participated in a program more likely to get a job, but they are also more likely to achieve higher wages as a result of participating in the program. We need to look at turning the JET Program into a serious skills program for women returning to work.
Number 5: lack of access to education
Access to education is not just an issue for women dependent on social security or for those returning to work after an absence. It is an issue for all women throughout their lives. The workplace of the future will need to be more actively linked to education and training as workers will move in and out of study throughout their careers.
The plans of Howard Government to deregulate university fees represent the biggest threat to women's educational prospects. If fees were deregulated and market interest rates charged on loans, some women would be especially penalised. This is because many women graduate, work for a few years and then take some time out to raise children. It is during this period of time out of the workforce that the debt would grow. Combine this with the higher fees that universities would be allowed to charge and it could take women 40 years to pay off their degrees at a total cost of $120,000 to $140,000.
Not only do women need affordable university education, we also need to forge more effective links with study throughout women's adult lives. The key issue will be achieving a shift in the attitudes of both workers and employers, and providing a financing framework that allows additional investments in skills. We need to find new ways to pay for study leave. One option is to give workers the choice to replace an existing entitlement�such as long service leave�that they do not use, with a new entitlement for study leave. This could then be cashed out in the form of six to 12 months paid leave for recognised study. Alternatively, workers could set aside a portion of wages into a fund topped up by the employer and the government to pay for extra study.
Women can lead the way in linking the workplace with lifelong learning.
Number 6: lack of leadership in government
Progress in reshaping the world of work will not take place without government leadership. The current Howard Government is not interested in achieving a better balance between work, family and study. They are only interested in putting the pressure on wages. This is a narrow view of what is possible and completely ignores the aspirations of workers, particularly women.
As the trend to longer hours for some and shorter hours for some and shorter hours for others continues and the 35-hour week declines as the norm, governments must be thinking about more creative ways to introduce balance into our working lives. Otherwise one group of Australians will be exhausted and miserable because they cannot spend any time with their family while another group simply hasn't the resources to provide their children and themselves with the opportunities they desire.
Number 7: lack of organisation amongst women
The most important barrier to change has been left till last. All women cannot achieve great victories on their own. If we are to take up the opportunity that the labour market presents us over the next decade, to reshape the world of work, we must be organised. And if we want to make sure that positive changes flow through to all working women�not just those in relatively strong positions�we need processes that make sure that good ideas are picked up and spread throughout the economy.
We need to think of a whole variety of incentives. Where unions are making inroads in those industries where women work, by delivering family-friendly enterprise deals, and employers are playing a leadership role in family-friendly workplace design, both need to be promoted and, where appropriate, rewarded. Government should get behind the shift to family-friendly workplaces and make sure that industrial relations, education and social security policies are working in partnership as opposed to conflict.
The recent de-funding of many women's groups, including the Women's Electoral Lobby, by the Howard Government has weakened the sector and undermined the breadth of advice usually received by government about women's policy. There is no doubt this is part of the Government's agenda to weaken these organisations.
Women have to guard against the three Ds when it comes to driving this agenda forward: defensiveness, disorganisation and disinterest. Being defensive about change will not stop it from happening. Women should not find themselves defending the status quo when it comes to workplace change. We should be charting our own version of change. We should be organised around this issue. It will unite women's groups. We cannot afford to be disinterested, as the changes happening in the world of work will affect all of us in one way or another. We have an opportunity to bargain for a better balance. We must turn that opportunity into a better outcome for all workers and a fundamental shift in the way society balances work and family.
Women's advance to equality has been considerable this century but there are still real barriers blocking women from achieving their full potential. The agenda for the new century needs to include affordable, quality childcare; family-friendly enterprise bargains; financial reward from working; return-to-work programs for women; and access to education. Leadership by government and organisation by women is essential if these policy priorities are to get the attention women need. Knocking these barriers down will not only significantly advance women's equality but also deliver a socially cohesive and economically strong society.
Interview: Working Woman
Cheryl Kernot on women in the workplace, Labor's male culture and where Meg went wrong.
Activists: Honouring Our Heroes
Anna Stewart changed the lives of Australian working families by helping women achieve balance between the competing demands of work and family.
Women: The Future is Female
Julia Gillard outlines the campaign to increase female representation within the Australian Labor Party.
Unions: Sweatshops � Beyond 2001
FairWear convenor Debbie Carstens looks over a unique partnership between churches and unions to end exploitation in the textile industry.
Politics: The Battle for Bennelong
Many trade unionists are working to kick John Howard out of office. But only one woman has a chance of kicking him out of his own seat. Meet Nicole Campbell.
International: Border Skirmishes
Alana Kerr travelled to Thailand to observe first hand the battle to organise Burmese women workers in exile.
History: Inside the Ladies Lounge
The McDonald sisters run Trades Hall, and have for over half a century. The building can�t speak about what has gone on in that time, but Lorna and Elaine probably know it all.
Satire: Taliban to Put One Nation Last
The Parliamentary fate of Pauline Hanson�s One Nation party was further obscured today as key fellow right-wing extremists moved to distance themselves from the controversial Queensland politician and the group she founded and leads.
Review: Seven Steps to Slavation
Jenny Macklin details the seven barriers that stand between women and a better working life.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005