'It's time to crack down on stay-at-home mums'

21st March 2017 5:31 AM

THERE'S one issue guaranteed to trigger hysteria across the nation every time it comes up in the news, and it has nothing to do with Pauline Hanson, international terrorism or Married at First Sight.

It's the topic of stay-at-home mums. More specifically, the release of any data or analysis that dares recommend Australian women should get out of the living room/kitchen/nursery and back into the workforce.

So the outcry has been predictable in the wake of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) recent report which had the audacity to suggest stay-at-home mums would be better off putting their skills to use in paid employment.

"One of the areas of greatest untapped potential in the Australian labour force is inactive and/or part-time working women, especially those with children,'' concluded the landmark study.

"There are potentially large losses to the economy when women stay at home or work short part-time hours.''

 

Are stay-at-home mothers doing more harm than good in our economy? Matthew Ennis Photography

Right on cue, hysteria ensued, with commentators from coast to coast howling in indignation at the very idea that the uppity OECD would insinuate Australia might have a tiny bit of a problem with our female workforce participation rates.

For days you couldn't walk past a television, radio or computer screen without encountering a defensive rant about how the most valuable work a woman can do involves nappies, play-doh, and a strict adherence to only leaving the family home during the hours of 9am to 5pm to attend playgroup or a similar non-work sanctioned activity.

And then we wonder why Australia continues to languish in the bottom third of OECD member states when it comes to female employment. It's no mystery; our collective support for working women makes Donald Trump's cabinet look like Women's March HQ by comparison.

First, a few facts. Anyone who has a child - and this goes for both mothers and fathers - knows that everything else in life becomes a distant second to that child's welfare, happiness and wellbeing. So this is not a discussion about the importance of parenting - that is beyond dispute.

And yes, the role played by parents in the early months and years following the birth of a child is vital and irreplaceable.

It also stands to reason that for many (but certainly not all) families, it is the mother who opts to take time off work during this period to solely focus on caring for her baby.

 

Once again, there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, that time at home should be a privilege afforded to more new mums, which is why a few years back I was a lone voice in supporting Tony Abbott's grossly misunderstood and thus ill-fated paid parental leave scheme, which proposed all female employees receive their normal salary for six months.

So it's not as simple as suggesting that the OECD's rallying call to utilise the potential of stay-at-home mums is an insult to mothers - on the contrary, it is the desperately needed voice of reason that Australians cannot afford to ignore.

Rather than wail about the supposed liberation in a woman's right to choose to shun paid employment, we should make it a legal requirement that all parents of children of school-age or older are gainfully employed.

The OECD was right to criticise the double standards applied to Australia's work-search rules regarding welfare benefits.

Lisa F Young

While young people face strict criteria when seeking to access the dole, those aged over 50 can still receive it despite not looking for a job by citing 15 hours volunteer work a week.

The double standards are even greater for stay-at-home mums, with governments of all persuasions traditionally wary to tackle the unfair tax concessions enjoyed by one-income households for fear of inciting voting fury. (No doubt they refer to Abbott's aforementioned paid parental leave scheme as a cautionary tale).

But it's time for a serious rethink of this kid-glove approach to women of child-bearing and child-rearing age.

Holding us less accountable when it comes to our employment responsibilities is not doing anyone any favours. Not children, not fathers, not bosses - and certainly not women.

Only when the female half of the population is expected to hold down a job and earn money to pay the bills in the same way that men are routinely expected to do will we see things change for the better for either gender.

Only when it becomes the norm for all families to have both parents in paid employment, and sharing the stress of the work-home juggle, will we finally have a serious conversation about how to achieve a more balanced modern workplace.

Only when the tiresome and completely unfounded claim that "feminism is about choice" is dead and buried (it's not about choice, it's about equality) will we consign restrictive gender stereotypes to history.

So long as we as a nation cling to the lie that only a stay-at-home mum is best placed to assume the responsibilities of caregiver then working fathers will continue to feel insecure about stepping off the corporate treadmill to spend more time with their children.

It's not good enough - and only when we evenly divide the responsibility for workplace participation between the two genders will we truly see a more equitable division between men and women in all parts of Australian life.

Sarrah Le Marquand is the editor-in-chief of Stellar magazine and the founding editor of RendezView.