30/01/2008 - 22:00

Engineering a fine balance

30/01/2008 - 22:00


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I have spent the past fortnight immersing myself in issues relating to women in business.

Engineering a fine balance

I have spent the past fortnight immersing myself in issues relating to women in business.

It’s a frustrating subject because it is so big, has so many complexities and prompts so many points of view.

Current debate centres on just how much business and government should do to change things.

Most women I speak to resist the idea of quotas, seeking flexibility in the workplace and tax regimes to allow them to achieve their own goals.

But the parliamentary leadership of the state and nation – itself better representative of the community than most management – has done little in the recent past to move things beyond basic anti-discrimination laws we have today.

This annoys many, but the argument ultimately comes down to economics. Business groups argue against the imposition of further costs, just because the Scandinavians do it. We already have superannuation and workers’ compensation offered to everyone in the workplace; business doesn’t want anything more.

So if we are going to see change, those who want it need to mount an economic argument.

At this point, I have to state that my personal circumstances would make me less of a beneficiary than the next generation. I have kids and they are swiftly growing up to the point where care demands are reducing.

So one could say I am disinterested in that respect.

The economic argument probably kicks off during World War II, when women were utilised across the Allied world in a fight to the death with Axis forces. While British women filled the factories, Germany’s much bigger population never turned to its womenfolk as labour, preferring to import slaves from conquered lands.

While war is viewed by many as a male creation, there is some irony that 1939-45 probably did more for women’s liberation than anything else in history.

Not only were women thrust into the industrial heartland and social mores changed, the war machine created a surge in technology, which found its way into domestic surroundings in peacetime.

While the advertisements sold domestic bliss, all those whitegoods made it easier for women to go out and work – ultimately.

By the 1970s there was a growing belief that women could have it all, and since then we have seen a steady increase in women at the top echelons of society, and not just as someone’s wife.

But liberation has not been complete due to the mother’s traditional role in child rearing. This is not just a societal position, most women feel the maternal instinct to raise their children.

Which brings us to the issues of maternity leave and childcare. Both are different, but intertwined.

While government and many big companies offer paid maternity leave as a policy, it is not the norm in Australia to receive it.

Some in big business like it this way, admitting it is an advantage in getting staff and acknowledging that it would increase their own costs if small business suppliers had to pay it as well.

Many in the workforce opt for employers who offer this. That creates risks for those who do, as well as advantages, with the possibility that they may wear the cost of maternity leave without reaping the long-term benefits.

In the end, it’s all about the relationship between the employee and the company under the current laws – and no-one is suggesting they are about to change any time soon.

Child care is a different issue.

For every woman in the workforce who has children, there’s a family bearing the cost.

For those who don’t have family willing to do it for nothing or a pay packet that far outweighs the cost, it’s a burden which can make their return to work marginal.

In the end, I really don’t think it’s fair to tax any part of income that is directly attributable to the cost of deriving that income. I think work clothes, transport to work and child care are among the items that ought to be tax deductible.

How far you go with that is a difficult decision.

Just like most might think a Zegna suit is a bit rich for a bank clerk, so many would blanch at making full-time child care a tax deduction.

While lots of women have no choice about full-time work, many in society would argue that supporting full-time executives is not only a tax-break for the rich, but also implicitly gives the thumbs-up for outsourcing motherhood. There is an argument that there is an ultimate cost to society in that, too.

That is probably the extreme end of the decision that society has to make.

Perhaps there’s a compromise which allows the bank clerk to get a decent suit and a mother to get some relief on child care. Perhaps society needs to set the benchmark.

In the meantime, we should not underestimate the loss to productivity in preventing choice.

The capitalist society we live in is all about individual choice.

By allowing some people choice, but not others, we end up distorting things, which ultimately has a cost. Our objective should be to get the best people in the right positions at the least cost to the nation.

Perhaps tax breaks for some level of child care, domestic help, or any related cost that derives more taxable income, would allow working women to enjoy motherhood without losing their skills entirely to the workforce.

It will take more skill than I have to come up with the right balance for women and society, but right now I think things are out of kilter.


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