Why investing in high quality early education & care is a silver bullet for women

I was a very junior reporter at BRW magazine, over a decade ago, when I first became curious about the various gaps that existed between men and women in Australia. The pay gap. The promotion gap. The power gap. 

I was both fortunate – and naive – enough to have arrived at university fairly confident that gender inequality was something of a historic relic. While not quite entirely sorted, in my world view, women in Australia were far closer to equality than inequality. I didn’t even realise I was wearing rose-tinted glasses.

Fast-forward a few years in the workplace, first in a commercial law firm and then as a junior at a business magazine, and the full extent of my naivety and ignorance was crystal clear.

The gap between men and women in the workforce wasn’t just stubborn, it was closer to a canyon in scale. When I started writing and reporting in earnest about gender one of the lines that arose often – from both men and women – was the idea that there was no single silver bullet that would deliver women equal footing in the workplace. 

Achieving equity was complicated and time consuming and rushing was to be avoided at all costs lest any woman advance ahead of a man unnecessarily. (The presumption of innocence until proven guilty in criminal justice is premised on the belief that 99 guilty individuals walking free is preferable to one innocent individual being imprisoned. Gender equity efforts appear to be constrained by the reverse: better to promote 99 mediocre men than risk a single woman getting a job she’s not qualified for.)       

I’m now convinced the “there’s no silver bullet” trope was a convenient – and effective – ruse to dampen the hopes and expectations of women while ensuring the status quo prevailed. But at the time it was an argument I heard often enough that on some level I accepted it. 

And while it’s true that achieving gender equity is more complicated than any one solution, it is also true that there are some levers that can reasonably be characterised as akin to silver bullets. Failing to appreciate and prioritise the power of these silver bullets to exponentially accelerate progress results in the depressing headlines like “Global gender equality will take another 100 years to achieve” that we’ve all read too many times. 

It’s tempting to believe this is because gender inequality is an intractable problem that is beyond human kind’s capacity to solve. It’s not.

The full headlines ought to read: Gender equality will take forever to achieve If We Continue To Ignore The Policies That Will Accelerate Progress & Create Meaningful Change. 

One silver bullet with the power to transform women’s working patterns and therefore gender inequality is the provision of high quality, affordable early education and care. It is a systems change. A critical piece of infrastructure that enables women to manage paid work with their caring responsibilities – in addition to setting children up for the best possible start to life. 

Countries that have invested in good quality early education and care systems that are highly affordable have a greater percentage of women working and narrower gender gaps in health, political engagement and economic participation. 

Australia has a peculiarly low workforce participation rate among women which is all the more curious because of how well Australia educates girls and women. 

But when you consider the high cost of ECEC in Australia and the way it interacts with our taxation and family benefits system, it’s not peculiar at all. It’s not financially rational for lots of Australian women to work beyond three days a week. So they don’t. 

And that creates a cascade effect which entrenches and exacerbates inequality between men and women. 

On Monday 12th October at 12.30pm I will be joined by non-executive director Sam Mostyn, the CEO of the Diversity Council, Lisa Annese and Women’s Agenda’s editor Tarla Lambert to explore the myriad reasons high quality early education and care is a silver bullet for Australian women and why now is the time to pursue it.  It’s a free event that The Parenthood and Women’s Agenda are hosting and we’d love to see you there. Register here.  

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Why investing in high quality early education & care is a silver bullet for women