October 31st 2009

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY / EDITORIAL: Australia's asylum-seeker policy unravels

CANBERRA OBSERVED: The toughest job in Australian politics

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: How the human rights consultation was hijacked

TAX INQUIRY: Treasury push to get more mothers into paid work

CLIMATE CHANGE: Temperature readings in rural Australia show no increase in 100 years

ENERGY: New gas resources explode "peak oil" alarmism

NATIONAL SECURITY: How much longer can Australia's luck hold?

CHINA: How the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wields absolute power in China

ECONOMICS: The taming of unbridled free market capitalism

REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH: Women not warned about abortion breast-cancer risk

VICTORIA: Protesting on behalf of the unborn

OBITUARY: Last surviving leader of 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising dies: Marek Edelman (1919-2009)

CINEMA: "Deeply troubling" rags-to-riches story: Mao's Last Dancer (rated PG)

BOOK REVIEW: BEERSHEBA: A Journey Through Australia's Forgotten War, by Paul Daley

BOOK REVIEW: REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION IN EUROPE: Immigration, Islam and the West, by Christopher Caldwell

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Treasury push to get more mothers into paid work

by Patrick J. Byrne

News Weekly, October 31, 2009
The federal tax inquiry is preparing to recommend cutting family assistance to get more mothers into the paid workforce, despite a recent UK study showing that women want family over paid work.

The policy change aims at removing the "disincentives" for women to work that are built into the welfare system, according to Treasury Secretary Dr Ken Henry, who is also head of the tax inquiry.

He said that the emphasis should be on increasing payments to families with very young children, but cutting back support as children get older, encouraging parents back into the workplace. He said that the current system, where family payments are withdrawn as a family's income rises, puts pressure on the other partner in a household to either cut working hours or not to work at all. (The Age, September 4, 2009).

Dr Henry's approach is based on the assumption that all women prefer paid work over family responsibilities, even when they have dependent children; that women find fulfilment in paid work alone; and that working mothers are needed in the economy.

His planned changes are a complete misreading of what women want.

Women with children, against their wishes, have been pushed into the paid workforce because of mounting household debt, stratospheric house prices, larger mortgages and a tax/welfare system that punishes single-breadwinner couples.

But this is not necessarily where women want to be, according to a recent report, What Women Want ... and how they can get it, written by Cristina Odone and published by the UK Centre for Policy Studies. The study is based on two on-line polls by YouGov, in which two batches of over 4,500 people where interviewed. (The report is available from www.cps.org.uk).

The poll found that:

• only 1 per cent of mothers with children under five thought that the mother, in a family where the father worked and there were two children under five, should work full-time;

• 49 per cent of such mothers thought she shouldn't work at all.

Fathers who were asked the same question offered an almost identical response:

• only 2 per cent thought mum should work when her husband worked and the children were under five; and

• 48 per cent thought she shouldn't work at all.

Further, only 12 per cent of mothers with children of any age wanted to work full-time and 31 per cent did not want to work at all.

Work-centred culture

Odone says, "Rejection of the work-centred culture is particularly pronounced among mothers. But it extends to all women. Among full-time workers, if money were not a constraint, only one in five women would continue working full-time; among part-time workers, only 6 per cent of women said they would choose to switch to full-time work ...

"This is not about women being work-shy ... it is about women having different priorities from those promoted by the governing elite. Ordinary women - and men - value the whole woman, who can fulfil more than her role as worker."

The poll found that women have a totally different priority from governments and the "commentariat" - that group of women working full-time and the elite group of high-flying career women they hail and quote - who set the agenda. This group don't tolerate any departure from their policy.

Odone is highly critical of the "commentariat" group that "influence and design public policy [and] claim to represent women, but choose to ignore their preferences. Their aim is to get more women into full employment, and ease their burden once they get there. Yet this policy satisfies only one in five women - and ignores the wishes of 99 per cent of mothers with young children."

The "commentariat", along with a small influential and unrepresentative coterie of politicians, broadcasters, journalists and public figures, has an ideological agenda. Odone says that for this group, the unspoken assumption is that "women achieve self-realisation through work".

For this group that dominates policy-making, "Every woman must be committed, fully, to work. Work must be organised so that, in terms of gender, it is equal as well as fair: it is not enough for men and women to earn the same for the same job; they must work the same number of hours within the home and outside it.

"They do not question the nature of today's working practice, designed by men and for men: fast-paced, competitive, all-consuming. Success at work must be the pinnacle of everyone's ambition. The message is that to fulfil your potential as a woman, you must earn a wage packet and enjoy independent status. You must, in other words, be like a man.

"There is no talk of changing a culture that regards the workplace as the only place that matters. For the commentariat by definition are engaged in prestigious, absorbing careers, rather than the mundane, bill-paying jobs that are most women's lot. Few work part-time. Even fewer know the pain of leaving their children in a wrap-around school or a Sure Start day-care centre."

Odone accuses the "commentariat" of betraying true feminism: "The irony of the attitude shared by women in the commentariat is that, although it purports to be by women and for women, it betrays feminism and its subversive campaign to overthrow the masculine worldview.

"Today's self-appointed spokeswomen want to adapt to the male world; the original feminists sought to change it. Where feminists wanted to win for women the right to choose how to lead their lives, today's establishment refuses to countenance other women's choices when they are not in line with their own.

"They act as oppressors rather than liberators, and the result is a hierarchy that quashes women's confidence, freedom and aspirations. Work-centred women are at the top; all other women languish at the bottom, second-class citizens who fail to conform to the inner circle's template. The prescribed template dictates not only the terms of employment but relationships."

Odone is also critical of the British government's determination to push women into paid work and their children into institutionalised care. The government sees the issue only in economic terms - more working women adding £23 billion to the British economy, creating a much larger tax base.

Governments see more and better childcare as providing the means for married women with children to go back into the workforce.

Both the UK family assistance system and Dr Henry's tax inquiry assume that low-income families don't take up the institutional childcare option, even though they have the most to economically benefit from doing so, because the means-test on family and child payments reduce these payments if they go back to work and begin earning too much.

Indeed, Ken Henry sees this a major "disincentive" to women going back to work after having a child.

However, as Odone says, childcare is not what most women want. British psychologist Dr Penelope Leach, in the Families, Children and Child Care (FCCC) study, found that although cost was a factor, affordability was never the over-riding criterion for parents in choosing to look after their children themselves rather than putting them into institutionalised childcare.

"Women were not holding back from work because they could not find affordable childcare; rather, because they wanted to bring up their children themselves," says Odone.

This is in line with detailed research conducted by the London School of Economics sociologist Dr Catherine Hakim in her study, Work-Lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century: Preference Theory (2000). Hakim has repeatedly argued that women's preference, rather than expensive child-care provisions, or gender-based inequality, attracts them to, and keeps them in, badly-paid, low-status, part-time jobs.

From this perspective, women are not victims but decision-makers. They place a low priority on careers, and prefer a part-time job that allows them to enjoy family time.

Three groups

Hakim identifies three groups of women:

• work-centred (about one quarter of women), who live to work, and fit children (if they have any) around the demands of their job;

• family-centred (representing another quarter as well), who prefer not to work once they have children; and

• adaptives (representing half), who seek to combine part-time jobs or flexi-time jobs and family life.

The three groups, Hakim claims, are found in all social classes, income groups and at all educational levels.

Yet still the minority "commentariat" dictates policy for the majority of women.

Cristina Odone says it's time for change. Some of her proposals to cater to the needs and wishes of most women would apply in Australia, and include:

• Government should change its childcare strategy. Pumping billions of taxpayers' money into a childcare system that is both unpopular with mothers and has been shown to harm children's emotional development, makes no sense.

• Instead, through the tax credit system and childcare vouchers, government should enable families to choose their mode of childcare, including parental or close family care.

• Government should reform the tax and benefit system so that it no longer penalises stay-at-home mothers. Income-splitting for tax purposes could redress this. Income-splitting regards the household rather than the individual as the basic economic unit. It allows married and cohabiting couples with children to be taxed jointly rather than as individuals. This would remove the disadvantage that single-breadwinner families, and many one-and-a-half earner families, currently face compared to families enjoying two full-time incomes.

• Government should provide information and support at crucial stages. Present funding of marriage services in Britain is a derisory £3.5 million per year. Directing some of the £21 billion the UK government spends on childcare provisions such as day-care centres towards supporting couples, both married and cohabiting, would be a step in the right direction.

• Finally, we need to break the stranglehold that a small coterie of women who work full-time and buy into the macho way of life, enjoy on our public life. For years they have misrepresented real women who reject the masculine value system for one that rates caring above a career, and interdependence above independence.

Odone concludes: "Real women do not want to commit full-time to a job. Real women do not see that as the route to self-realisation. They recognise that there is far more to life than a healthy profit or a great deal.

"Material woman, who apes material man, is over. The economy cannot sustain her, society feels betrayed by her. The future belongs to the real woman, who points to a lifestyle embracing feminine values. Let's hope this Government - or the next - is brave enough to heed her call."

Patrick J. Byrne is national vice-president of the National Civic Council.

All you need to know about
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TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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