Organisations can use this moment to transform themselves and the lives of working parents, says AHRI CEO Sarah McCann-Bartlett.
Unfortunately, Australia is not through with lockdowns. Hopefully the current one in Victoria will be the last, but we should remember that each and every lockdown will have a disproportionate effect on certain groups. And one of the most affected groups is parents with young children.
June research from The Parenthood, which surveyed 2,200 families, found that a return to pre-COVID childcare fees would cause more than half to reduce work hours. In 68 per cent of those households the parent who will be taking on less work is the mother.
In a recent article in The Age, Australian HR Institute CEO Sarah McCann-Bartlett spoke about how sunsetting benefits (federal government childcare subsidies ended on Monday) would affect Victoria in particular.
“If we see the loss of childcare centres in Victoria as a result of less government support we will see increased stress within the family unit as parents deal with work and childcare simultaneously,” she told the newspaper.
HRM spoke to McCann-Bartlett in a follow-up conversation where she stresses that this wasn’t just something Victorian parentss should care about; she emphasised the impact the issue has on gender equity. Even before the pandemic, childcare was not something that should ever be sidelined as a woman’s issue, but rather viewed as a family and an employer issue,” she says.
“Childcare can create stress among employees – between home and the workplace – and it can mean employees have trouble bringing their whole selves to work. So if an employee doesn’t have access to high-quality, affordable childcare, that is an issue for the employer.
“If there isn’t access to childcare, the pay gaps means it’s often the woman who takes a step back in her career. This also affects employers. The pool to recruit workers from is diminished and this will flow onto less diversity in the workforce. Research shows this damages the overall performance of the workforce.”
A harsh spotlight
If you want to know what remote work during lockdown is like, you would get two very different answers depending on whether you ask a parent. For many without children, while it had its challenges, remote work was a revelation. They were more individually productive and enjoyed the flexibility. For parents of younger children however, the normal juggling act of work and home life became that much more acrobatic. When childcare is not available, they have to simultaneously work and take care of often demanding, restless children.
Before the pandemic, different organisations had different approaches to childcare, depending on their size and resources.
“For example, a some larger companies might have on-site childcare,” says McCann-Bartlett. “And that suits them because they have scale, the physical capacity to offer it, and it creates a draw card for employees with young families. Others may subsidise offsite childcare.
“At the other end, for smaller businesses, it would be impossible to provide childcare and difficult to provide subsidies. But considering its effect on work, every employer should make sure they understand the issue and lobby for affordable childcare that is available to everyone.”
Just as it has with issues around remote work, digital inclusion, employee surveillance and privacy and domestic violence, COVID-19 has taken a pre-existing issue – childcare and workplaces – and shone a harsh spotlight on it.
But that can be turned into an advantage, says McCann-Bartlett. HR professionals can use this moment as a burning platform to make parental policy changes in their workplace. There will likely be a groundswell of support, but it might not last forever.
“During this time, men are realising they can spend more time with their children. This is time you can’t get back later,” she says. “And there are a lot of men who’ve realised how important that accessibility to childcare is, because they’re noticing the difficulty of looking after children while working full time. They can actually see it happening before their eyes.
“And employees at all levels, in a wide variety of roles, now realise that flexible work is possible. It’s not just for certain positions and seniority levels.”
This echoes a talk from diversity expert Elizabeth Griffin, who spoke to HRM about how something like this pandemic can act as a “black swan event” that lets you rapidly embed a diversity and inclusion mindset into your organisation.
Childcare and parental leave certainly interact with diversity and inclusion. Research shows that they are a huge contributor to the gender wage gap, and studies show that even though dads want to take more time off for their kids, they don’t.
Some leading organisations have tackled the root of the issue by abandoning the conventional primary and secondary childcare classifications – all parents get the same leave. Other organisations have made it a priority to have men in senior positions role model for those in more junior roles.
But all this raises the question of just how much you can focus on in a crisis. How many burning platforms can you have, and which diversity and inclusion issue should you prioritise?
“These are all issues that have been around for a long time. If you ignore one, the risk is that people will think you believe the others aren’t important. In reality, all of these issues are pieces of the puzzle in creating workplaces that are equal, diverse and inclusive,” says McCann-Bartlett.
“I think if you asked employees which would you choose – equality, diversity or inclusivity – they would say all of them. So the message for employers is to not waste this crisis.”