Australian Economy

An economy for women at last

It also adds punch to the Victorian government’s Gender Responsive Budgeting and $940 million of gender equity-focused policies in its 2022-23 budget.

For childcare, in particular, the whole may be greater than the sum of the parts as the Commonwealth and states collectively tackle demand, supply and price.

Childcare suffers from market failure when left to the private sector alone. Given the public interest in its efficient and high-quality provision, Labor’s childcare policies could assist affordability, while the states’ initiatives could help boost the supply side by assisting with the infrastructure and skills that are needed.

Better access to childcare makes it possible for women to work more hours, and changes the type of work that they might choose.

The ALP is aiming for a universal 90 per cent subsidy for all families for childcare. The first step will see an increase in the maximum subsidy rate to 90 per cent for families earning up to $80,000 and an increase in the subsidy rates for every family earning less than $530,000. It also plans to extend the increased subsidy to outside school hours care.

The economic underpinning of these policies is the critical need to get more Australian women – who are the most highly educated and skilled prime- age female labour force in the OECD – into the workforce. Tightness in the labour market is an acute problem for Australian businesses.

Seek has 241,221 job listings today. The Australian Bureau of Statistics Labour Force survey shows 537,100 unemployed people in April. That’s 2.2 unemployed people per job ad. The pool of possible employees can be broadened if those not currently in the workforce can be convinced to jump in.

The ABS will release its latest Barriers and Incentives to Labour Force Participation survey later this year, but the 2018-19 survey told us that the most common reason women were unavailable to start a job or work more hours within four weeks was “caring for children”. For men, the No. 1 problem was “long-term sickness or disability”.

Quebec a powerful example

Universal affordable childcare has long been proven to lift women’s workforce participation – which right now is at a near-record high of 61.2 per cent, but still below men’s at 70.7 per cent.

The Canadian province of Quebec is a powerful example. Since the introduction of affordable childcare, the participation rate of women in Quebec has increased dramatically compared to its neighbouring province of Ontario.

Not only does better access to childcare make it possible for women, in particular, to work more hours, it also changes the type of work that they might choose.

As e61 program director Dan Andrew told The Australian Financial Review last week: “When childcare is costly and prohibitively expensive, people change their behaviour. In the case of a highly skilled parent, for example, they might choose a less demanding job within an organisation due to childcare constraints and a consequence of that is that we are not maximising human talent.”

If women are out of the workforce for two or more years, there are significant implications beyond the years that they are new mums. It can affect the type of work they do, and therefore the pay they earn – and the superannuation they retire with.

Labor’s policies also include legislation to ensure companies with more than 250 employees will have to report their gender pay gap publicly.

They have committed to strengthening the ability and capacity of the Fair Work Commission to order pay increases for workers in low-paid, female-dominated industries.

A Women’s Budget Statement will also make up part of the regular annual budget documents, designed to ensure the government thinks about how its policies can improve the lives of Australian women. It will also increase its parliamentary gender balance to ensure half are women.

We are confident that Australia’s governments will work together on gender issues because the current generation of voters has made it clear they want action. Senior Coalition representative Simon Birmingham has already noted that ignoring gender was a mistake.

Chief Executive Women has five clear asks of the new government, and all have been endorsed by the teal independents: “Invest in well-paid, secure jobs in care sectors; make quality early childhood education and care accessible and affordable; expand the Commonwealth Paid Parental Leave scheme for all parents; make workplaces safe from sexual harassment and appoint a gender-balanced cabinet.

“We, as an organisation whose purpose is to build a better working world, urge our parliamentarians, state and federal, to prioritise gender equality in the workforce and help unlock Australia’s economic potential.”

Women’s economic empowerment has never had a better chance. I’m excited.

Cherelle Murphy is chief economist for EY Oceania.

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