A fair share of the care?

By Nicholine Hayward on Friday, 17 March 2023

With the Chancellor’s announcement of a raft of measures in the Budget designed to help working parents with the cost of childcare, including expanding free schemes to all children aged under five, many mothers will be hugely relieved. Perhaps now, it’s going to be worth their while to go out to work and not see the majority of their earnings swallowed up in childcare costs. Charities and support organisations are likely to greet the news as a major step forward for women in the workplace. For too long, they have argued, the crippling cost of childcare, among the most expensive in the world, is holding women back from pursuing fulfilling careers whilst making a valuable contribution, as taxpayers, to the exchequer.

Hang on a second. Why is this so often framed as a women’s issue? Why is the cost of childcare considered to come out of the mother’s salary and not the fathers? Yes, we know there are pragmatic economic arguments that the cost of childcare is the opportunity cost of working that should be applied to the partner who earns the least. Likewise, it would be naïve not to acknowledge this is often the mother and if she can’t earn more than the cost of childcare she might as well stay at home and look after the children.

But is the phrase ‘look after the children’ really what this is all about? There’s a tacit assumption that a mother’s ‘real job’ is to be the primary caregiver, and therefore if she wants to work, then she’s the one who must pay her domestic stand-in. Do you want to go out to work? Well, that’s going to cost you.

There are so many issues in play here, from the gender pay gap to tired old stereotypes about breadwinners and career women and there’s no obvious or immediate solution. It’s a lot more complex than simply suggesting parents get a joint account and pay for the childcare from that. Nor would it be right to undermine the charities and women’s groups who are doing great work in championing their cause. But making this a women’s issue isn’t helping, in fact, it’s only helping to perpetuate the assumption that childcare is a tax that only applies to women.

Rather, we think it’s about reframing the issue away from women and towards parents and household incomes. And it needs women to push back and challenge whenever they hear it said that it’s their job to pay for childcare and it’s their salary that it comes out of.

It’s not our job. Like parenthood itself, it’s a responsibility we share. So let’s go halves.

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