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  • Written by The Conversation
Western Sydney’s childcare ‘desert’ locks women out of the workforce. Universal childcare could be a game-changer

Momentum is growing for the Australian government to provide universal early childhood education and care – free or very-low-cost childcare for all families.

Access to quality, affordable childcare can help parents join or remain in the workforce – particularly women, who still perform the majority of unpaid household work.

Our recent report examined women’s labour force participation in Western Sydney, Australia’s third-largest economy.

A lack of accessible and affordable early childhood education and care services makes most of the region a childcare “desert” and contributes to lower labour force participation rates for women – 65% in Western Sydney compared to 76% in the rest of the city.

Limited local employment options, long commute times and structural discrimination are further barriers women in Western Sydney face when juggling caring responsibilities.

Our research suggests universal childcare could play a huge role in tackling the stubborn labour and wealth inequalities that persist across Western Sydney, and other regions facing similar challenges nationally.

Pay gaps across geography and gender

Both women and men in Western Sydney earn less than women in other parts of the city, which complicates the gender pay gap picture.

Our research shows a deep spatial divide across Sydney in employment patterns, unpaid care responsibilities and income levels, despite women in the city’s west gaining tertiary qualifications at rapid rates.

Sydney train on tracks
For many people in Western Sydney, accessing quality employment means a long commute. PomInOz/Shutterstock

Full-time working women in Western Sydney earn about A$20,000 less per year than those in other parts of the city.

The prevalence of relatively low-paying, feminised jobs in Western Sydney, compared to higher-paying professional roles in central and eastern Sydney, plays a significant role in this gap.

There is also a significant gender pay gap within Western Sydney itself. Women earn around $12,670 less annually than men in the same region, and have lower participation rates. This is partly due to a gender divide across work types and industries, and gender differences in career progression.

But women also bear the brunt of unpaid care responsibilities, such as childcare, caring for elders and household management. This unpaid, and often undervalued, care work is crucial for society, but it only adds to the pay gaps across geography and gender.

Western Sydney’s childcare ‘desert’

Where families live can have a huge impact on their access to quality employment and childcare.

Most of Western Sydney is considered a childcare “desert” – an area where there are more than three children aged four and under for each place available in childcare.

In economically marginalised areas, the privatised system of childcare isn’t meeting families’ needs. Research has found the care systems currently on offer do not match the realities of work and family life in Western Sydney.

Our research has found that on average, women in Western Sydney take on more unpaid childcare responsibilities than women in the rest of Sydney, regardless of whether or not they are also employed.

And we found it is the least privileged women who are bearing the greatest impacts, particularly recently arrived migrants, refugees and solo mothers.

Women who migrate to Australia often leave behind their extended family and other important support systems in their home countries. Some seek to bring their children’s grandparents to Australia to assist with childcare, but this is a slow and costly process.

Sydney opera house collage made by child
Unpaid care responsibilities contribute to the geographical pay gaps across parts of Sydney. Maya Afzaal/Shutterstock

Giving women a fairer go

Access to paid work can have a huge impact on equity, social justice and inclusion across society.

We acknowledge not all women want to join the workforce. But universal early childhood education and care could significantly boost their ability to do so if they choose.

For their children, access to quality care in early childhood is linked to better outcomes later in life.

The Productivity Commission has just handed the government its final report from an inquiry into Australia’s early childhood education and care sector, which will soon be made public.

Particularly relevant for Western Sydney communities, the commission’s draft report argued that any reform needs to go beyond access to childcare and also address inclusion, flexibility and cultural safety.

One common criticism of universal early childhood education and care is that it risks offering “middle class welfare” to wealthy families. But the Centre for Policy Development has argued it should be seen as a basic public service, like Medicare or public schooling.

For women in Western Sydney and other childcare deserts, greater support for childcare could help them break free from the geographical barriers currently holding them back.

Read more https://theconversation.com/western-sydneys-childcare-desert-locks-women-out-of-the-workforce-universal-childcare-could-be-a-game-changer-233446

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