A local journalist contacted me for comment on paid parental leave.
A Manawatu academic and advocate for women’s rights has slammed the government for threatening to veto moves to extend paid parental leave, accusing it of ignoring the needs of babies.
Professor Deborah Russell, a lecturer in accountancy at Massey University, working mother and a feminist blogger said while affordability was an issue, there was always a way if the need was great enough.
“We need to have a think about what are the important things to afford and at the moment we are not very good at directing funds towards small children.”
Dr Russell said if parental leave was extended it might encourage fathers to share more of the load of early childcare, giving them a chance to bond better with their children in the early stages of development.
“Women normally take the parental leave and the childcare duties and that can have a long term impact on their careers. If we extend paid parental leave to six months men might take it up or share the leave and so we lose that gendered dimension.”
Just to be clear, I’m not actually a professor, and given that the paper contacted me, rather than me contacting the paper, that word “slammed” is exciting, but perhaps not quite accurate. However, the journalist represented my views very fairly indeed, and captured the two ideas I most wanted to get across.
1. Childcare is heavily gendered, with women more-or-less always being responsible for it. This shortchanges both women and men. Women lose income and career progress, and men lose connection and confidence with small children. More paid parental leave might enable more men to share the childcare in those early weeks and months.
2. Saying paid parental leave is unaffordable only makes sense if we regard it as something that has to be funded in addition to everything else we already fund. If we were willing to re-examine all our existing spending commitments, such as giving farmers a tax break on the emissions trading scheme, and the lack of means testing around New Zealand superannuation, then it might turn out that more paid parental leave was affordable afterall.
The Sunday Star Times reported today that more and more women, and some men, are giving up paid work because childcare costs are simply too great.
The story is familiar: by the time a family pays for childcare in order to enable both parents to earn income, nothing is left over from that second income. It is simply too expensive. This certainly gels with my own experience, and with the experiences that other women have reported to me. Just last week, one of my cousins told me that she gave up on returning to her interesting job when she realised that she was looking around for cheaper childcare. Given the nature of her job, and the extent to which her partner travels, she needs bullet proof childcare, the sort where she is able to call half an hour before she is due to pick her kids up because an urgent task has come in. That kind of childcare is simply not available at a price where she will have money left over from her salary.
But there is a curious anomaly in our funding of childcare and education. As it turns out, for many parents, the turning point is when their children head off to school. School is virtually free, “donations” and stationery aside, and it is freely available to every five year old in the country. We fund reasonably comprehensive childcare and education for five year olds, but not four year olds. The anomaly exists for historical reasons, but it seems to me that it could usefully be reviewed. Just like our existing spending could usefully be reviewed, both a part of a national conversation about what kinds of support we want to see young families getting.