Lisa Bryant: If childcare is 'women's work', why are we letting men decide?

Why are the women of Australia letting the blokes do all the talking about childcare?

Why would a woman want to be a member of parliament? Outnumbered, sidelined and if they are lucky enough to score ministerial responsibilities it's almost always a "softer" portfolio. Like childcare.

Huge hats off then to Assistant Education Minister Sussan Ley, who made it through an absolute corker of a radio interview about her portfolio last week.

The (male) interviewer, Grant Goldman started the interview by confessing that he'd "had a number of children, some names I can't even remember." Hilarious, yes?

Goldman discussed the increasing need for childcare, with peals of wisdom such as "it's also keeping women sane, because they like to get out of the house a bit and away from the children for a while, it's good for them".

The minister didn't choke on the phone at that point and luckily had already hung up before he started rhapsodising about her voice ("She's got a lovely voice, too, isn't it? Sussan – she could be on radio".)

The interview did raise an interesting question though. Why are the women of Australia (including the minister) letting the blokes do all the talking about childcare?


Women have historically been the ones with primary responsibility for caring and raising children. (It may be gradually changing in some areas – check out the number of hipster men pushing prams in inner-west cafes!). But it will probably remain mostly a women's job for a while yet.

Not only are we the ones responsible for it, we are also the ones that make the decision about whether and when we will return to work after having them and we are the ones that so often sacrifice our careers by working part-time to keep our children and families functioning.

Our childcare centres are staffed predominantly by women (97% of people working in the education and care sector are women.) The researchers and academics who study the education and care needs of young children in our universities are women. The teachers that pass on the skills needed to care for very young children in our TAFE colleges are women.

Women know what children need. We also know what we need in terms of childcare. We know instinctively whether we are happy to leave our child at a childcare centre or if we are not. We know that the word 'childcare' is a misnomer because we watch our children learn each and every day of their lives and understand the power of early education. (I swear that my adult children would still not know how to say please and thank you if it wasn't for the intervention of their childcare centre!)

Blokes know this. They are (hipsters not withstanding) mostly happy to leave childcare to the gals (and to the gal politicians). So why, given that childcare is and always has been women's business, are we letting the blokes in charge decide what we and our children need?

It seems to be a new level of 'mansplaining'. Not only are men telling us how to do change a tyre, or the proper way to understand football, they're also telling us how to properly "make that goddamn sandwich" and how to look after our children.

Did Tony Abbott even ask a woman about whether his paid parental leave scheme was what women wanted before he decided it was? The majority of women seem to be fairly united on rejecting it in favour of more childcare.

Did the economic geeks in the Productivity Commission really privilege what the women experts they heard from throughout their childcare review told them about the dangers of cutting childcare quality?

Did the Treasury boffins that demanded that the cost of childcare be reined in, ask female taxpayers if they agreed with a compromise on quality?

Sussan Ley, I won't comment on the tone of your voice. But I will point out that you have one. Please use that voice for the women in Australia who can't. Stand up to the Productivity Commission and tell them that women don't want to see the quality of our childcare reduced. Tell the men that women are more than willing to be productive members of the workforce but only when we are completely happy that our children are being nurtured, cared for and educated well.

One day our role in raising children may be valued and counted as part of our country's economic performance because being a mother is for many women the most important job they will ever undertake. Until then, women must ensure that the systems that the blokes want to set up to care for our children are good systems. The blokes may think that childcare just allows us to get away from our children for a bit, but we know it's important for our kids.

Lisa Bryant is a consultant in the early education and care sector.