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Flexible families = workplace equality

Sharing the childcare load across the community could be the secret weapon in the fight for workforce gender parity

The battle for gender equality is not a battle of people but a battle of ideas. International Women’s Day reminds us of the huge economic and social strides women have made over the past 50 years and points to future directions for improvement.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day 2016, I offer five key ideas that could help equalise gender relations and improve the status of families. For these, I draw upon current research and lessons from around the world to provide innovative and novel ideas that could be instituted in the Australian context.

Some suggestions are rooted in policy, while others focus on the power of community.

1. Involve the community in childcare

One of the biggest challenges for modern families is to balance work and family demands. For many parents, transition points are sources of great stress, as young children have an uncanny aptitude for losing all of their socks when you are trying to get out the door. Yet, the collective pain could be alleviated by collective action. For ideas, we can draw upon the innovations of other nations.

Children regularly catch public transport to school by themselves in Japan. Picture: John Gillespie, Flickr

In countries like Japan, children as young as five take public transport to school alone as social taboos prohibit parents from dropping them off themselves. In Sweden, schools provide (nutritious and affordable) meals for children, reducing the work of packing daily lunches. In the United States, school buses transport children to and from school. All of these measures harness the support of community to alleviate the stress of childcare, which may have positive spill-over for parents’ health and employment.

2. Make men the focus

Men today are more committed to co-parenting and gender egalitarianism than in previous generations. The lack of policies to protect men’s caregiving, however, make them exceedingly easy targets for discrimination and prohibits them from being equal caregivers. This problem requires a two-pronged solution.

Today’s fathers are more committed to co-parenting and gender egalitarianism than previous generations. Picture: Stephen van Loy/Unsplash

Firstly, it requires a shift in cultural dialogue about men and masculinity that celebrates rather than demoralises men’s caregiving. Secondly, it requires a policy shift that protects men from the economic and professional consequences of taking leave. Sweden instituted a use-it-or-lose-it policy for parental leave, requiring men to take some of the leave. As a result, men were more active parents and domestic sharers after the leave ended. Men want to care but they need to be institutionally supported to step into these roles.

3. Synchronise work and school schedules

Parents are intrinsically tied to children’s schedules. This poses a major problem when work and school schedules are not synchronised. In response, parents have two options: reduce work time or find alternative care arrangements.

For many families, mothers reduce work time to care for children, reducing family incomes and jeopardising their careers. Dual career couples either access school-provided holiday programs that are often expensive, or burn through their holiday time to provide care.

A variety of school holiday care options supports families. Picture: Kimson Doan/Unsplash

An alternative option would be to provide holiday camps and after-school activities to fill these gaps. These policies could be tax subsidised to ensure all children, regardless of parents’ income or employment status, have access. This would encourage healthy family and child outcomes.

4. Spread care across the generations

The emphasis on individual solutions to care-giving problems is a western phenomenon.

In many eastern cultures, families share responsibilities for child and eldercare, allowing the working age population to work and the older age population to care for children.

This care responsibility typically falls to women, and can have negative health consequences, so don’t ask your Mum to move in just yet.

Intergenerational art programs are good for everyone. Picture: Flickr

There are, however, many lessons Australians could learn from other countries about the importance of intergenerational care. A recent study finds blending preschool and aged care homes in a single location benefits children’s and older age adults’ cognitive development. Extending these ideas to after-school care could alleviate families’ care demands for the young and old, as well as alleviate some of the space demands of after-school care programs.

5. Broaden leave arrangements

Our lives today are complicated. This message has been well articulated for parents, yet those without children also have demands that require attention, intervention and compassion.

As academia and organisations increasingly focus on complex issues of work-life balance and provide better support to parents, the institutional support for childless people is largely absent.

While children’s needs often enable working parents to take leave to care for children, an equivalent institutional mechanism is not available for a childless person to care for a sick pet, roommate, friend, or even themselves.

Modern life is complex. Picture: Andrew Imanaka/Flickr

Let’s be clear – these are different experiences than family or sick leave. Rather, what we are suggesting is the institutionalisation of complexity leave, allowing individuals to access leave for a multitude of reasons.

This leave equalises institutional support for the needs of the complex life of the modern worker.

The ideas we propose above are but a few directions for future work. In the spirit of International Women’s Day, we absolutely celebrate the progress we have made, but also continue to urge Australian decision-makers to consider more creative, atypical policy and community-focused approaches to addressing gender inequality in the future.

with Sarah Gundlach

Banner image: Getty Images

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