TRIGGER WARNING: Mansplaining.
Women can’t seem to catch a break these days. As if dealing with the catcallers, creeps and sexists wasn’t enough, they also have to contend with other women ready to pass judgement about their decisions and choices. Women like “prominent” feminist Clementine Ford who recently opined that girls who choose to take their husband’s last name after marriage need to accept their internalised misogyny and acknowledge that their choice isn’t legitimate because it originates in the evil, ever-pervasive ‘patriarchy’. Ford’s article featured multiple instances of the word “choice” placed in quotation marks. Because after all, a person’s choice isn’t really a choice if it’s the one you or your ideology doesn’t approve of, right? Apparently in this context at least – ‘no’ doesn’t simply mean ‘no’.
And then there are those who pass judgement on single mothers – now arguing, seemingly unironically, that it should be illegal for stay-at-home mums to not have jobs. That’s right. In this recent Daily Telegraph piece, Sarrah Le Marquand – editor of Stellar magazine – argued that the way to address Australia’s less-than-the-OECD-average female workforce participation rate was to make it compulsory for both parents to be gainfully employed. The argument was that women who choose to give up their career to be stay-at-home mums are performing a great disservice and the only way we can combat gendered expectations that the wife rather than the husband should take time off to raise the kid is through legal coercion.
Marquand does have a point. It’s unfortunate when a female worker with the skills and aptitude to contribute at the top of the ladder in her chosen field ends up foregoing her potential by permanently dropping out to raise a kid or taking months off which could be crucial to her career progression or transitioning to part-time work which limits how far she could go. The economy loses the full value of her skills and education and the government loses out on taxes with revenue spent on a range of concessions given to families, most of which counts as ‘middle-class welfare’. Women’s empowerment loses out on a potential success story that could don the cover of Vogue.
But is this as tragic as a professional athlete (male or female) giving up their potential sporting career to take up a day job? Despite the loss of national prestige from the athlete’s potential success, no one – well, perhaps some Chinese Communist Party stalwarts or veterans of the KGB regime longing for the old days – would suggest that this choice should be illegal. And what if their heart just isn’t in their sporting career… if all they really want is a secure job they love doing that lets them support the family they love?
Who are we to dictate to people the value they find in the choices they make? Motherhood or fatherhood – parenthood, really is one of the most satisfying and life-changing experiences anyone can go through… Or so I hear from the family friends who ask 24-year old me about when I plan to settle down and marry a nice girl. Screaming toddlers with runny noses aside, I don’t doubt that they’re being sincere. Some people might legitimately want to focus their energies on raising the child by being more fully involved in its life. Sacrificing personal goals for the sake of those you love is not actually unfortunate – it’s noble. Especially in a society where educated women are increasingly expected to not be stay-at-home mums.
As for the many who become stay-at-home or part-time working mums out of compulsion – the best thing we can do for them isn’t to poke them with a stick. It’s to reduce the cost burden of being a full-time working mum. We can start by making childcare cheaper – not through more middle-class welfare, but through tax cuts on childcare as well as – dare I say – cuts to the income taxes of working families, especially working women. A woman-only tax cut for those who choose to stay in the workforce and send their kid to childcare might seem sexist, but considering that our paid parental leave scheme is currently relied upon disproportionately more by mothers than fathers, this is closer to a reallocation of money we already spend. Tax cuts like these – or even subsidies, are certainly a preferable alternative to increasing the ‘baby bonus’ and other forms of government support which don’t do much to incentivise working motherhood specifically.
We could also reduce or remove some of the complex red tape surrounding the child care sector, reducing barriers to entry and making business or even the activity of childcare cheaper. A report from the Centre for Independent Studies found that there was little evidence from Australian and International studies that stricter regulations improved childcare outcomes with many studies finding that mandated staff to student ratios and a requirement that workers have academic qualifications had no significant effect on childcare outcomes. There is clearly working room for legalising low-cost childcare by removing some of these regulations.
All these options are preferable to fighting the ‘social pressure’ on women to spend more time raising a child by making it illegal for them to not go to work.
I mentioned the KGB earlier. Because let’s face it, that’s what this corporate-dressed proposal essentially is – Soviet-style Communism. It is the woman’s duty to sacrifice her choice to spend time with her child for the sake of the country and the women’s revolution… and the economy too. In our Western liberal tradition, we value an individual’s choice and do not presume we know better than them what motivated them to make it regardless of whether we agree or disagree.
We live in a rapidly changing society with increasing emphasis on female workforce participation and society’s traditional perception of the mother as the primary carer of the child is slowly but surely beginning to weaken. We certainly don’t need to coerce people, especially the women we want to empower, to turn society into our personal ideal conception by giving up their agency. And we certainly don’t need to denigrate the choices of those who leave the workforce to play a greater role in their child’s life.
Satyajeet Marar is a Research Associate with the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance
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