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OECD touts mums’ economic potential

You don’t often see a positive spin on unemployment figures. In this case, however, mums have cause to smile. The OECD has tipped them as the single largest potential contributor to Australia’s workforce.

In a report, Connecting People with Jobs, the intergovernmental economic organisation said our economy could grow by 20 per cent if women worked as much as men. Women with children, who generally work less than childless women, could stand to contribute the most.

Currently, just 73 per cent of women aged 25-54 are employed. Although this is increasing, Australia has one of the highest rates of female part-time workers amongst OECD nations.

Why not working?

The OECD didn’t provide reasons for a lack of women’s, especially mothers’ workforce participation, but Lyn Craig, professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Melbourne, did.

A lack of affordable, accessible childcare is her top rationale.

Once you factor in childcare costs, “many were not earning enough to make [working] worthwhile”, Craig offered.

Her views are shared by Roger Wilkins, professorial research fellow and deputy director, research for the HILDA Survey, who last year noted that “there is little doubt that access to affordable and high-quality childcare looms large in the minds of many parents with young children”.

For single mothers, the career scenario worsens. We have the third highest rate of unemployed single mothers in the OECD, after Turkey and Ireland. Craig said the same arguments apply to them as to coupled-mothers. But with single incomes, single mums have it harder. For those who work in retail and hospitality, the recent decision of the Fair Work Commission to trim Sunday penalty rates will amplify this burden.

Lyn Craig

Childcare availability influences workforce participation: Lyn Craig.

Can government or employers help?

While the federal government peddles its childcare funding package as the solution to expensive childcare and, in turn, to mothers’ workforce participation, Craig said it’s imperfect. “It’s just tweaking around the edges,” she surmised. She raised the point that schooling is almost fully subsidised, so it’s strange that early learning isn’t treated the same way.

And, Craig said, increased workplace flexibility won’t get more women working, either: it’s the long hours, not where you work them, that are the issue. Her suggestion is that employers should expect employees to work 38-40 hours a week, not the 50-60 hours expected of many white collar breadwinners.

This may seem far-fetched, but it’s not impossible. Last year, Sweden trialed six-hour work days. Although this was criticised for its governmental cost, employees reported being happier and more productive.

Closer to home, this week, Greens leader Richard Di Natale raised the prospect of a four-day work week. If women could add 20 per cent to the economy by working as much as men, perhaps some number-crunching is in order.

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