International Women’s Day is a good time to think about the political issues that affect women, and what policy changes can be made to help improve women’s lives. Childcare, a hot political topic at the moment, is certainly one of those issues.
It is women who predominantly take on the main responsibility for raising children (between the ages of 25 and 34, 24 times as many women are classed as economically inactive due to family responsibilities as men), and it is women whose employment rates are dramatically reduced after having a child, and never again equal men’s even once children have grown up. When we asked mothers in a poll, the cost of childcare was repeatedly cited as one of the reason mothers didn’t return to work. While we fully support women’s choice to work out of the home or to stay at home, if the choice is between staying at home to raise your children and actually being worse off if you return to work and pay for a nursery, the choice is hardly a free one. And it is not only the cost; many mothers, when returning to work after maternity leave, talk about the guilt they feel at leaving their children with a ‘stranger’. If they cannot trust that the childcare they use will be high quality and beneficial for their child, they are less likely to feel it is acceptable to return to the workplace. In our report Quality Childcare we look at a range of ways to drive up the standards of childcare on offer, but also to help working parents, particularly those on low incomes, afford good childcare.
This is just looking at one part of a very complicated picture. The underlying issue of why women are overwhelmingly responsible for childcare must also be addressed. The changes to parental leave arrangements are a vital step forward, as currently they legislate for ‘traditional’ divisions of work and child-rearing between men and women. Additionally we must always bear in mind the attitudes we have, and those that we pass on to young people, about men and women’s roles, and what we can do make people question theses views. And of course the gender pay gap – as long as this exists it may continue to make financial sense for women to be the primary carer.
But childcare still matters; helping those women who want to, to return to work and achieve their ambitions through the availability of affordable high quality childcare will enable more women to flourish in the workplace. In doing so it will also help to change society’s views about the role of mothers and fathers in working in or out of the home, thus helping the next generation of men and women to make more sensible and free choices about work and childcare responsibilities.
It is also vital to show that the idea that childcare is a ‘women’s issue’ is wrong. Childcare is an economic issue; with more female university graduates than male we know that women are and can be just as intelligent, able and well-educated as men. To lose out on this talent pool is bad for employers and bad for the economy. Childcare is a poverty and employment issue; most of the increase in employment in low and middle income families in the past fifty years has come from women. Childcare is an education issue; high quality early years education and childcare has been shown to raise the attainment of children, particularly from low income families, throughout their lives. Childcare is an issue for all of us who want to live in an equal society, where jobs are given to the most able so businesses flourish and where the next generation of children grow up happy, intelligent – and able to pay for our pensions.
Childcare should not be pigeon-holed as a ‘women’s issue’, to be pulled out when pollsters tell politicians of any party that they need to appeal to women; it should be a core part of any party’s policies on employment, education and economic growth.