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What women want

Is paid maternity leave enough?

Carmen Lawrence

My topic takes the form of a question: "what women want: is paid maternity leave enough?", a question I can answer very quickly and simply. "No."

As we are all aware, the paid maternity leave debate has suddenly become an all-consuming passion for those who comment on so-called women's issues and agonise over falling fertility rates, often to the detriment of the broader debate. While we have committed a future Labor government to introduce paid maternity leave, we have consistently said it is only one - albeit important - part of a larger package to help families balance their working lives. We are also acutely aware of the need to address issues such low wages, affordable childcare, a better mesh between leave, working hours and family responsibilities, and the growing intensification and insecurity of work.

I refer to families deliberately, since paid maternity leave, although a workplace entitlement for mothers, is not just about women. It also benefits their families. The recent debates surrounding paid maternity leave, and whether women should stay at home with baby or go to work without, ignore a new generation of fathers who also want to redefine their work and family roles. Their role is often forgotten or wilfully ignored in the current debate about paid maternity leave, which is increasingly distorted by right-wing commentators.

I think there is little disagreement with the prediction that paid maternity leave is now almost inevitable; that it will eventually occur in Australia, as it has in every other developed country (except the USA). The core question is how best we can target paid maternity leave so that it actually helps those workers who are most disadvantaged by taking time out of the workforce.

A spate of recent reports continue to show what we all know - that Australian working women's lives are becoming more difficult and that Federal government policies are exacerbating the problem. The Howard government's policies have increasingly favoured those on higher incomes, and discriminated against working women. Their industrial relations policies have actually accelerated the erosion of civilised standards for working hours and conditions and have added to the stresses of modern Australian life.

All families deserve support for the choices they make in managing their family lives - whether there is one income or two, whether one or other parent takes significant time out of the workforce, and whether they decide to have children early or later. It is a feature of modern Australia - though not of John Howard's fantasy world - that more and more women are combining work with parenting, and the majority of Australian families are attempting to combine work and family responsibilities in an increasingly hostile public policy environment. The decisions about combining work and family are not idle abstractions. One young woman reported to my office that in a workshop she attended on work and family issues: the debate was strongly dominated by one senior woman who believed I should stay at home and have babies, and a second senior woman who believed the radical opposite. I don't think that either of them realised for a moment that their arguments were real to the three or four young women in that room.

One could substitute the women in that workshop for the people commenting in the media. As other young women have reported back to us: "the commentary has to stop making value judgements about a woman's choices or way of life because young women no longer feel guilty about the decisions they make in their lives with regard to children and careers." What we need to do is support real choice, offer quality care to children and ensure less stressed families.

John Howard is correct when he has described the paid maternity leave issue as a "barbeque stopper". However, when it comes to action by the Prime Minister and his front bench, it really is a case of all sausage and no sizzle! Nick Minchin, Minister for Finance has claimed that paid maternity leave is simply "middle class welfare". I am amazed at this. If a leave entitlement to have a child is middle-class welfare then what is the baby bonus - a scheme which gives those women who earn most a large tax rebate, but very little to low-income earners? Interestingly, he justified such comments this week by saying that the baby bonus "scheme is one of this government's more enlightened and significant contributions to public policy because it returns to Australian working women some of the taxes that they paid in the year leading up to the birth of their child." I would argue that a government-funded paid maternity leave entitlement would support working women by providing payments as a return on the tax that they have paid, and will pay.

Asked whether he agreed that paid maternity leave was middle class welfare, the Treasurer said that he thought the concept of paid maternity leave being provided by big business and government employers was a good one, and that "those employers that are able to pay for maternity leave give a very valuable service to employees". Apparently this valuable service should only to be available to those women who already have paid maternity leave - which is those women who are placed in generally well paid jobs in the corporate sector or the public service.

No mention either of the fact that employers also receive a benefit. Lion Nathan recently doubled the paid maternity leave entitlements for their employees from 6 to 12 weeks, arguing that it helped them retain talented female employees, would attract more women into their blue collar workforce, and would reduce their costs because the cost of the scheme was likely to be less than the cost of replacing workers.

According to the Treasurer, and the government, paid maternity leave should be an exclusive benefit available to women who work for large companies and governments. Women on lower wages or who work for small business simply miss out. Only 0.7 per cent of Australian Workplace Agreements provide for paid maternity leave, and only 3.4 per cent of all private sector agreements currently contain these provisions. Research by the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training (ACIRRT) shows that, overall, there has been a fall since 1998 in the already low percentage of agreements containing paid maternity leave provisions. Figures released this week show a further decline in the percentage from 10 per cent in 1998-99 to 7 per cent in 2000-2001. According to the ACIRRT report, 65 per cent of managers and administrators have paid maternity leave compared to only 18 per cent of clerical, sales and service workers, meaning that well-paid professional workers tend to have these provisions and families under financial pressure miss out - this is clearly not fair. Family friendly provisions cannot be the exclusive province of professional women working in large corporations or the public sector. It must also be available to women working in or running small businesses, and women working in factories and shops.

It is worth examining some of the critiques of the proposal to introduce paid maternity leave - there have been some stunners. The most recent flurry of activity has come this week from a report by Barry Maley, a Senior Fellow with the Centre of Independent Studies1. It formed the basis of a piece by Angela Shanahan in the Australian on Monday2.

Maley argues that paid maternity leave is not the answer to any question - increased fertility rates, enhanced gender equity or increased workplace productivity - that the real answer is to provide stable marriages, tax credits and enhance the value of motherhood. To the detriment of logical debate, however, he makes grandiose justifications for WHY it is not acceptable to have paid maternity leave, such as: deliberate policies designed to bribe or coerce couples to have more children would be repugnant. Like the Chinese one-child policy, it would treat men and women as no more than instruments in a controlled breeding exercise intended to achieve a certain level of population.

Fourteen weeks government funded leave to ease the transition of women in and out of the workforce and provide a more supportive early environment for the mother and child, and China's one child policy that has resulted in some women seeking refugee status in Australia - I can see the similarity! The Baby Bonus of course is the real one child policy - it only applies to one child. Or this one: Compulsory or government-provided paid maternity leave cannot be justified as a 'gender equity' measure. It is properly an issue for voluntary negotiation between employers and employees. The question of employment continuity for employed mothers should be separated from the question of a maternity or dependent child payment.

As I said earlier, we can already see how well this works for those not in professional positions. But apparently it is these women's choice to undergo financial and professional penalties in order to give birth. I would not argue that having a baby is not a choice - but why make it a punishable offence for some women when it is a valid social contribution to society?

Maley further argues: A woman, it is claimed, has 'no choice' but to give up work continuity and income when she has a baby ... 'No choice' is the basis of this argument; but this is misleading, and no question of injustice or coercion arises. Working mothers and prospective working mothers always have the option of not working. The decision to work is a free one, as is the decision to have a baby, and both have foreseeable consequences. There is no coercion here, and no injustice unless it is claimed that the imperatives attached to pregnancy and parturition are injustices inflicted upon women by some human agency."

This is an echo of the Treasurer's words I reported earlier. As we all know - it is far easier to deal with the consequences of this choice if you are a professional woman in the public service or big business with better workplace entitlements and a higher income capacity. What if you are a casual factory worker for whom the income is vital? Should you be penalised for not being a corporate lawyer?

Finally, he states that: ...evidence suggests that the reasons why women are choosing to have fewer, or no, children go beyond an either/or choice between career and children. It is probable that falling fertility is, in part, a response to profound social and economic changes. And it may be that these are so deeply determined, so entrenched and popular as to be beyond reversal or mitigation except at unacceptable financial and social cost. The movement of mothers into the workforce is an outstanding example, along with the increasing fragility of married life.

Here I agree - it is because of social and economic change. Yet apparently the solution is not to adjust families workplaces to suit the changes that global economic and social changes has brought, but to maintain impediments to this adjustment. Does he propose that taking mothers out of the workforce is the solution? He probably does.

For your illumination, Barry Maley is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and his work is featured by organisations such as:

  • Men's Rights Agency - whose main aim is to "promote equal rights and a level playing field for all men..."; who acknowledge the right of all women to equality, but state that "over-reaction is causing an imbalance leading to discrimination against men"; and who are prominent campaigners against the family court and the payment of child maintenance;

  • The Festival of Light - a fundamentalist Christian organisation who lists the purpose of papers such as Mr Maley's "to provide a Christian perspective on current issues that relate to the family"; and

  • The HR Nicholls Society - a conservative industrial relations think-tank, one of whose founders was Peter Costello.

As you all know, but Mr Maley appears not to, the majority of women workers are found in the services sector, which has a high concentration of casuals and part-time employment and is, generally speaking, a low wage sector. A government report this week reveals that the proportion of enterprise agreements which provide for casual labour has rocketed from 43 per cent to 71 per cent in the past two years. Women hold 72 per cent of part-time jobs (59 per cent of which are casual) and, as many women will testify, these jobs are often less than ideal. Casual workers are often denied benefits such as superannuation, allowances for skills, bonuses, loadings and over-award payments.

Much of this work is not structured to meet families' needs, but rather to suit the employer. The most recent data on collective agreements actually show deceases in the percentage with flexible starting and finishing times, provisions for family and carer's leave, maternity leave and home-based work. We're going backwards under the current regime.

Many women's working lives are also characterised by broken patterns of workforce participation due to child bearing/rearing, underutilisation of their skills, and residual wage discrimination. It is also obvious that work that women do is still not valued as highly as that of men. These characteristics of women's work mean that we need to devise labour market policies that provide for the upgrading of skills and ensure that financial and service supports are available to promote continuity of employment across a woman's working life. We also need to address the undervaluation of work which is predominantly undertaken by women.

The policy mix to ameliorate these problems should include measures to reduce the gender pay gap, paid maternity leave, more affordable and accessible childcare, strategies to ensure that part-time work is a solution and not a trap and more family-friendly working environments across all industry sectors, not just in large corporations employing professional women. It means ensuring that Australia's workplace relations system works for women by preventing inequitable outcomes.

However, the Howard government's award simplification legislation has limited allowable award conditions, the two major results being:

  • That elimination of women-unfriendly working conditions is harder to achieve, especially in industries classified as highly feminised; and

  • That elimination of the gender pay gap has stalled.

I was astounded to learn this week that the Employment Advocate has admitted he has stopped collecting information on family-friendly measures in the workplace agreements favoured by the Howard government, even though he is required in law to report annually on progress in the extent to which agreements facilitate better work and family balances.

Australia needs a sea change in the policies and attitudes that are hindering the capacity of families, and particularly women, to take on and survive the complex responsibilities of work and family. And we must oppose the message that those in the government send that these policies are for the corporate high flyers with nannies and housekeepers, as they are really for the millions of Australian mothers whose jobs are the safety net in their family's economic survival who work to pay the bills and to support their families. These families simply can't afford to have one parent at home full-time for five years, and many of these women can't afford to lose their connection to paid work, and the skills and confidence that are so important to ensuring their security in our rapidly changing world.

To do this requires require the development of more responsive models of parental leave and income support, improved access to high quality, affordable childcare, and a modern industrial relations agenda with options like longer unpaid leave with guaranteed job security, part-time work, working from home, and job sharing.

This is what women want.


Carmen Lawrence is Australia's Shadow Minister for Reconciliation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs; Shadow Minister for the Arts; and Shadow Minister for Status of Women. This is the transcript of her address to the NSW PSA Annual Women's Conference on 20 September 2002.


Notes 1. Barry Maley, "Families, Fertility and Maternity Leave", Centre for Independent Studies, 16 September 2002. 2. The Australian, 17 September 2002.


Suggested citation

Lawrence, Carmen, 'What women want', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 7, November 2002.<>


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