The Family Issue

The general Australian attitude towards family politics is one that has given me more headaches than I can count, and I’m not prepare to sit here and sugar coat it; this country is still stuck in the 1960’s when it comes to financial family policies. ‘The Australian model’ has one basic essence: a woman finds a man with a good profession/high salary (he needs to be able to support a family, after all), has children, stays at home with them because child care is too expensive, then remains the primary caregiver until 10 years later she goes back to work only to find that her degree is no longer applicable and she has to take up some mind numbing work just to stay afloat. Whilst there are obviously variations of this model, it is sadly the truth more often than not (and I’ve lived here for over a decade to witness it). Time & time again governments aren’t prepared to come up with a proper maternity leave scheme and implement it. Time & time again the Australian population’s reaction towards any slight tax increase for the common good is meet with great fear and anger.  I really don’t understand it. Why is Australia so behind in family friendly policy making?

There are two major issues with the way the government support families today:  one being the lack of an adequate and fair government maternity leave scheme and the other being access to subsidised, low cost childcare. Democratically elected politicians are spending more time and money on bizarre anti immigration strategies, right under the nose of the people who elected them, than thinking about the common good of the people who actually live here. There seems to be a policy hole in the way financial family policies have been developed at an institutional level, and what’s even more worrying is that the general public just doesn’t seem to demand any changes in the way family policies are being developed.

Moving away from politics, there is also tremendous amount of work to be done within workplaces. In my experience, many workplaces seem to have a general negative attitude when it comes to supporting working mums to stay working, and there are no generally no extra sick days or assistance schemes for any working mother (or father for that matter).  Women who wish to return to work after being on maternity leave often find their role has been ‘restructured’, or they are unable to come back to work in a part time capacity. There are also numerous examples of women being pushed out of managerial positions post child, and instead been offered a lesser role. Take it or leave it. This not only creates the culture and understanding of a workplace as being a place where ‘male culture and rule dominates’, it also has the unfortunate consequence of shaping negative attitudes of women by other women. I have directly observed this type of negativity towards working mothers with small children in several workplaces, where the norm is that you should always be ready to work overtime (i.e. be single and not have much of a life outside of work) and sick days are something you just accrue on your payslip. Time & time again I have listened to comments made by (usually single) women towards women with children, saying “it’s their choice <having children>, so they shouldn’t complain about anything <work related, i.e. pressing demands and unachievable part time workloads>”. This is part of an obscure conception that having children is somehow a choice made by women only, and now they’ll just have to face the consequences of such ‘bad’ decision-making.  And by the way, who do they think they are these women who think that they can even remotely contribute to the workforce whilst also raising small children? There is also a strong pattern where women in leadership roles, married or unmarried, don’t have children, or have chosen to not have children. Who can blame them though, in a country where having a decent career and children is an equation that just doesn’t marry up!

Luckily, it’s not all depressing everywhere. Some places in the world seem to get it right. I give you the example of Sweden.

According to statistics worked out by the European Union, Swedish parents are among the EU’s most successful in balancing work and family responsibilities. Female and maternal employment rates are among the highest in the EU, and child poverty is the lowest. The country’s family policy is aimed at supporting the dual-earner family model and ensuring the same rights and obligations regarding family and work for both women and men. Generous spending on family benefits, flexible leave and working hours for parents with young children and affordable, high-quality childcare are the main factors for success. The aim of the Swedish financial family policy is to contribute to improved conditions for good living standards for all families with children, increased freedom of choice and empowerment of parents.

At 71.8% in 2011, the employment rate of women was close to that of men (76.3%) and well above the Lisbon target for female employment (60%). Measured at 73.7% in 2011, the employment rate of mothers of children under six is the fourth highest in the EU. At the same time, at 1.9 children per woman in 2011, the fertility rate is relatively high compared with other EU countries.

In Sweden, a high proportion of women use flexible working arrangements. Female and male part-time employment rates stand at 39.6% and 13.7% respectively, compared to the EU averages of 32.1% for women and 9% for men. Women work on average five hours per week less than men, a smaller difference than elsewhere in the EU. At 15.8%, the gender pay gap in Sweden is lower than the EU average of 16.4%.

Sweden has a highly developed and flexible parental leave scheme that allows and encourages both parents to spend time with their children. The mother and the father are together entitled to up to 16 months paid leave per child. Of this, 13 months are paid at 80% of the most recent income up to a ceiling of approximately 440,000 SEK ($72,000 AUD) per year and the remaining three months are paid at a flat rate of 180 SEK ($30 AUD) per day.)

Each parent has a personal, non-transferable entitlement to two months of paid parental leave (of the total 16 months). The remaining 12 months can be freely shared between parents. The right to be absent from work full time is restricted to the child’s first 18 months. Thereafter parents who want to reduce working hours or be on full leave must use parental benefit days to ensure such a right to parental leave. Parents have the right to decrease their working time by up to 25% without using parental benefit days, until the child is eight years old or finishes the first year of school.

At around 3.2% of GDP, financial benefits for children and families represent one of the highest shares in the EU (the EU average is 2.3% of GDP). Along with the high level of labour force participation, this is also seen as a major reason for low poverty among children. Sweden has one of the EU’s lowest child poverty rates  (14.5% in 2011) and was among the top-rated nations for child well-being in the 2007 UNICEF report.

What Sweden is essentially doing is not only recognising that raising children is an extremely important task that can and will be paired with full- and part time work successfully (given the parents feel supported by their government and work places), it also contributes to happier, healthier and well functioning families. Check out this Danish study for proof of this. Furthermore, this also contributes to greater gender equality, and leaves women with real choices about their life, not only in their marriage and family life, but also in their workplace.

Australia needs to learn from countries such as Sweden, instead of developing into an ‘American Dream’ like society. The notion that families are something private in which the man has to take care of still has a strong presence, however all this really does is limit the options for women and put pressure on men to be the sole breadwinner in an economy which is getting more and more difficult to navigate.

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