Parental Leave

Two posts in one month! Woah!

A couple of weeks ago there was a flurry of stuff about the Liberal party’s Parental Leave policy (viz: 26 weeks at 100% of your wage, paid out of the general tax pool rather than by your employer, up to $150k), mostly due to a coalition backbencher coming out against it in the press (I’m sorry, I mean, due to “an internal revolt”, against a policy “detested by many in the Coalition”). Anyway, I haven’t had much cause to give it any thought beforehand — it’s been a policy since the 2010 election I think; but it seems like it might have some interesting consequences, beyond just being more money to a particular interest group.

In particular, one of the things that doesn’t seem to me to get enough play in the whole “women are underpaid” part of the ongoing feminist, women-in-the-workforce revolution, is how much both the physical demands of pregnancy and being a primary caregiver justifiably diminish the contributions someone can make in a career. That shouldn’t count just the direct factors (being physically unable to work for a few weeks around birth, and taking a year or five off from working to take care of one or more toddlers, eg), but the less direct ones like being less able to commit to being available for multi-year projects or similar. There’s also probably some impact from the cross-over between training for your career and the best years to get pregnant — if you’re not going to get pregnant, you just finish school, start working, get more experience, and get paid more in accordance with your skills and experience (in theory, etc). If you are going to get pregnant, you finish school, start working, get some experience, drop out of the workforce, watch your skills/experience become out of date, then have to work out how to start again, at a correspondingly lower wage — or just choose a relatively low skill industry in the first place, and accept the lower pay that goes along with that.

I don’t think either the baby bonus or the current Australian parental leave scheme has any affect on that, but I wonder if the Liberal’s Parental Leave scheme might.

There’s three directions in which it might make a difference, I think.

One is for women going back to work. Currently, unless your employer is more generous, you have a baby, take 16 weeks of maternity leave, and get given the minimum wage by the government. If that turns out to work for you, it’s a relatively easy decision to decide to continue being a stay at home mum, and drop out of the workforce for a while: all you lose is the minimum wage, so it’s not a much further step down. On the other hand, after spending half a year at your full wage, taking care of your new child full-time, it seems a much easier decision to go back to work than to be a full-time mum; otherwise you’ll have to deal with a potentially much lower family income at a time when you really could choose to go back to work. Of course, it might work out that daycare is too expensive, or that the cut in income is worth the benefits of a stay at home mum, but I’d expect to see a notable pickup in new mothers returning to the workforce around six months after giving birth anyway. That in turn ought to keep women’s skills more current, and correspondingly lift wages.

Another is for employers dealing with hiring women who might end up having kids. Dealing with the prospect of a likely six-month unpaid sabbatical seems a lot easier than dealing with a valued employee quitting the workforce entirely on its own, but it seems to me like having, essentially, nationally guaranteed salary insurance in the event of pregnancy would make it workable for the employee to simply quit, and just look for a new job in six month’s time. And dealing with the prospect of an employee quitting seems like something employers should expect to have to deal with whoever they hire anyway. Women in their 20s and 30s would still have the disadvantage that they’d be more likely to “quit” or “take a sabbatical” than men of the same age and skillset, but I’m not actually sure it would be much more likely in that age bracket. So I think there’s a good chance there’d be a notable improvement here too, perhaps even to the point of practical equality.

Finally, and possibly most interestingly, there’s the impact on women’s expectations themselves. One is that if you expect to be a mum “real soon now”, you might not be pushing too hard on your career, on the basis that you’re about to give it up (even if only temporarily) anyway. So, not worrying about pushing for pay rises, not looking for a better job, etc. It might turn out to be a mistake, if you end up not finding the right guy, or not being able to get pregnant, or something else, but it’s not a bad decision if you meet your expectations: all that effort on your career for just a few weeks pay off and then you’re on minimum wage and staying home all day. But with a payment based on your salary, the effort put into your career at least gives you six month’s worth of return during motherhood, so it becomes at least a plausible investment whether or not you actually become a mum “real soon now” or not.

According to the 2010 tax return stats I used for my previous post, the gender gap is pretty significant: there’s almost 20% less women working (4 million versus 5 million), and the average working woman’s income is more than 25% less than the average working man’s ($52,600 versus $71,500). I’m sure there are better ways to do the statistics, etc, but just on those figures, if the female portion of the workforce was as skilled and valued as the male portion, you’d get a $77 billion dollar increase in GDP — if you take 34% as the proportion of that that the government takes, it would be a $26 billion improvement to the budget bottom line. That, of course, assumes that women would end up no more or less likely to work part time jobs than men currently are; that seems unlikely to me — I suspect the best that you’d get is that fathers would become more likely to work part-time and mothers less likely, until they hit about the same level. But that would result in a lower increase in GDP. Based on the above arguments, there would be increase the number of women in the workforce as well, though that would get into confusing tradeoffs pretty quickly — how many families would decide that a working mum and stay at home dad made more sense than a stay at home mum and working dad, or a two income family; how many jobs would be daycare jobs (counted as GDP) in place of formerly stay at home mums (not counted as GDP, despite providing similar value, but not taxed either), etc.

I’m somewhat surprised I haven’t seen any support for the coalition’s plans along these lines anywhere. Not entirely surprised, because it’s the sort of argument that you’d make from the left — either as a feminist, anti-traditional-values, anti-stay-at-home-mum plot for a new progressive genderblind society; or from a pure technocratic economic point-of-view; and I don’t think I’ve yet seen anyone with lefty views say anything that might be construed as being supportive of Tony Abbott… But I would’ve thought someone on the right Bolt or Albrechtsen or Australia’s leading libertarian and centre-right blog or the Liberal party’s policy paper might have canvassed some of the other possible pros to the idea rather than just worrying about the benefits to the recipients, and how it gets paid for. In particular, the argument for any sort of payment like this shouldn’t be about whether it’s needed/wanted by the recipient, but how it benefits the rest of society. Anyway.

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