Kate Emery: Why school hours are sexist and killing women’s ambition

Kate Emery
The Nightly
4 Min Read
In today’s episode, the latest on NSW alleged killer cop Beau Lamarre-Condon, why Albanese has been cursed since his failed Voice referendum and the daily battle to make school pickup.

Australia’s glass ceiling is kept intact less by sexism than by school hours.

In the 63 years since the invention of the contraceptive pill — the single greatest equaliser for working women — the country’s work and home life have changed even more drastically than its hairdos and fashion choices.

Dual-income households are the norm, c-suites no longer require a Y chromosome to enter, mothers aren’t expected to stay home with their kids and it’s (more) socially acceptable for men to do so. There are even rumours of men who do 50 per cent of the housework.

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One thing that hasn’t changed? School hours.

Ignoring variances between schools and States, most school days start around 8.45am and finish at 3pm. The traditional work day starts at 9am and ends at 5pm.

That two hour gap is the pit into which women’s hopes of equality at work go to die.

For a two parent family where both parents work, the school run means a choice between after-school care or more juggling than a Cirque du Soleil performance.

After school care requires some combination of money (if you’re paying for it), luck (it’s not always available) and close family support (free babysitting).

The juggle requires one parent to work either part-time, flexibly or not at all. Because women, on average, make less than men — step away from your angry email, it’s true — in a heterosexual relationship it’s often the mother who opts to stay home, work less or prioritise flexibility over career advancement.

Hello, gender pay gap. Hello, superannuation gap.

Not everyone wants to work 9-5, five days a week.

Kate Emery.
Kate Emery. Credit: The Nightly

Some parents — mums and dads — are perfectly happy to work less in order to be there for school drop-off and pick-up. Some jump at the chance to prioritise time with their kid over time with their boss, even if both are equally prone to temper tantrums when they get hangry.

But others either want to or have to work more than school hours allow. And, given the Australian Government’s focus on boosting women’s labour force participation, it is bizarre that the question of how two working parents are supposed to handle the school run is so rarely acknowledged by those in power.

We hear plenty about the value of parental leave, early education and childcare for very young children, but crickets when it comes to the 13 years that is school education.

NSW MP Jordan Lane was an exception last year, when he used his inaugural speech to describe Australia’s part-time education system as a “relic of a sexist, bygone era where society assumed women stayed at home and were responsible for the school pick up”.

“The great travesty of public policy would be if the education system of the 2050s looks as it did when it was established in the 1950s,” he said.

For the most part, instead of hearing those in power acknowledge the inherent flaw in pursuing both part-time education and full-time employment, what working mums and dads get is guilt.

Guilt for the working parent who slips out at 2.45pm for school pick-up, guilt for the working parent who doesn’t, guilt for the parent who has to justify their decision to stay home and not work, guilt for being both a bad parent and a bad employee and guilt that the promised work-life balance feels perpetually out of reach.

Then there’s the fact that public schools have roughly 13 weeks of holidays a year and the average worker gets four weeks of annual leave. You don’t need to be Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind to realise these sums do not add up.

Families patch over the cracks with childcare, holiday programs, grandparents and — here we go again — having one parent who doesn’t work full-time.

Don’t even ask me how single-parent families manage any of the above because I can only assume some kind of Faustian pact that I don’t want to know about is involved.

We need to talk about it a lot more. . . if we’ve a hope of putting a crack in that ceiling.

There’s no easy solution because every working family struggles in its own way, as Leo Tolstoy probably would have written if the great Russian author ever had to put down his pen and make it across town to pick his 13 kids up from school.

We could do worse than starting with the Productivity Commission’s recommendation that governments need to look at “wrap-around care” and establish out-of-school hours care at every public primary school. That was from a draft report, the final version of which goes to the Government in June.

At a time when the four-day work week is gaining momentum, workplaces could also consider embracing school hour work days instead.

Employers pushing employees back to the office after a post-COVID surge in working-from-home should consider what it means for working mums and dads.

In NSW some schools are trialling different school hours, including before-school supervision and after-school homework clubs.

Not every family wants two parents working full-time.

Not every family wants after-school care.

Not every family wants flexible work.

But some families want some of the above and we — parents, politicians, employers and employees — need to talk about it a lot more and a lot more loudly if we’ve a hope of putting a crack in that ceiling.

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