An Australian Institute of Family Studies report on how households coped with coronavirus lockdowns found two-fifths of parents working from home were actively caring for children at the same time, and the proportion of families who didn’t use any kind of external care more than doubled to 64 per cent.
The rapid changes forced on workplaces as coronavirus restrictions shut businesses have fast-tracked conversations that have gone on for years.
“In the absence of child care and the absence of workplace accommodation, then it just leaves women out of work altogether which has big impacts,” Ms Jenkins said.
“Even if you weren’t in the [closed] sectors or weren’t in those secondary roles, it is women who … have voluntarily reduced their hours because of the stress of the additional responsibilities and then within families have made a decision, you earn more, OK you can go and lock yourself in the room [to work].”
The government made childcare free for three months in April in a bid to keep centres afloat as parents withdrew children because they could no longer afford fees or due to health concerns.
Ms Jenkins said fee-free childcare had recognised that if essential workers had caring responsibilities, they couldn’t work when the community needed them.
Unions and parents’ advocacy groups have called for free childcare to be retained, at least for the most disadvantaged families. A report this week from Australian National University researchers said keeping free care would have short-term stimulus benefits and prove economically good in the longer term, while Grattan Institute modelling has shown increasing subsidies could boost the economy by $11 billion a year.
While it is too early for many employers to think much beyond the immediate logistics of helping as many staff as possible keep working, Ms Jenkins said the conversation about how to support those with caring responsibilities was evolving.
The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Parkville, Victoria opened on-site childcare in mid-2018 – director Doug Hilton describes it as “a Qantas club for kids” – in a bid to attract and keep more female researchers. It also offers help with fees and lab technicians for researchers taking maternity leave.
In recent years, half the institute’s new lab heads have been women and Professor Hilton said making it easier for female researchers to imagine stepping up and taking responsibility had been vital.
Laboratory head Dr Tracy Putoczki has two young sons in the childcare centre and says it goes a long way to easing the pressure points of being a woman in science.
“Obviously the logistics every day of driving into work, parking the car, dropping the boys off and walking straight into work means that I can focus on work and not stress about all the other things that come with having children and working,” she said.
Katina Curtis is a political reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra.