Childcare key to getting women back to work after pandemic: sex discrimination commissioner

Australia's sex discrimination commissioner has nominated a redesigned childcare system as her top priority, saying the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted its importance and the massive barrier to work posed by a lack of accessibility.

Kate Jenkins wants to see a system that offers better support for women and men to start work or do more, has a strong focus on early childhood education, and provides better support to its predominantly female workforce.

Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins says making childcare better support parents, especially mothers, to work will be vital to the coronavirus recovery.Credit:Jesse Marlow

"I know it's not an easy change but if that could be done during this disruptive time or out of this, it would be a great step forward for women and work," she said.

Ms Jenkins also called on the nation's bosses to retain flexible working arrangements once the pandemic was over to keep more women in workplaces.

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.

Walter and Eliza Institute laboratory head Dr Tracy Putoczki has two young sons in the on-site childcare centre and says it goes a long way to easing the pressure points of being a woman in science.

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.

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