Free childcare a must for legal business owners
“The choice between having a satisfying career that provides for your family’s financial needs and ensuring your child is well looked after and having their emotional and developmental needs met shouldn’t have to be a hard one”, says Courtney Bowie.
A new campaign, “Make It Free”, has launched to demand that the federal government reform the early childhood education and care systems to make it permanently free across the board. Moreover, the campaign is calling on the government to ensure that all families in Australia have access to quality education and care for their children, and that educators and carers be paid fairer wages.
Already, approximately 100 businesses spanning a diverse range of industries – including but not limited to law, financial services, property, health and fitness and public relations – have signed on as supporting partners.
Her Lawyer, the boutique law firm of which Courtney Bowie is a founder and principal, is one of the founding members of the campaign. Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Ms Bowie said that, unfortunately, the cost to the average Australian family of having a child in full-time care is such that parents may have to make hard choices between providing financially for one’s family and ensuring children are suitably cared for.
“Most of us understand that once a second child is added to the mix, it’s going to be cheaper for the [lower-income] earning parent (usually the mother) to stay home and care for the children herself. It would actually cost her money to go to work. I know some people who love their jobs that much, but not many. Many would simply accept that giving up her job and staying home with the children is what’s in the best interests of her family, and that would be that,” she explained.
“The ramifications flow naturally from there: a slump in career progression, drastically reduced superannuation reserves, reduced earning potential, lower self-esteem, poor mental health.”
Our current system, Ms Bowie argued, “has produced what can only be assumed to be an unintended outcome: women are disincentivised to work after children”.
If not unintended, she mused, the system is “at least now well outdated”.
“To make childcare free across the board would remove this impediment and result in happier, more fulfilled parents who are able to meet the needs of their children, as well as themselves – not just financially, but mentally and emotionally as well,” she said.
COVID-19 exacerbating the issues
Unfortunately, Ms Bowie continued, the “mental, physical and emotional burden” of restrictions imposed due to coronavirus has had a significant impact on the wellness and mental health of many business owners, including boutique law practitioners.
As a result, it is imperative that the government consider how best to reduce the burden on working parents, she surmised.
“The economic toll that COVID-19 has taken has been enormous. With research showing the positive impact free childcare would have on the economy, it just makes good sense for all of us to be prioritising funding for free childcare,” she posited.
“The federal government has demonstrated that it’s willing to invest in sectors where jobs can be created, such as with the investment in construction. Investing in free childcare follows the same line of thinking – create more jobs, get more people back at work and get the economy going again.”
Impact upon lawyers
These concerns, Ms Bowie outlined, are particularly troublesome for boutique lawyers who have to balance parenting responsibilities.
“As a working parent with a child recently off to childcare on a regular basis, free childcare would alleviate some of the financial burden on me. Although, I acknowledge that I’m very fortunate to have the resources to pay for childcare and I’m also eligible for a partial subsidy,” she mused.
“Unfortunately, when babies head off to [day care] for the first time, parents can expect them to end up sick up to 10 times per year. That’s almost once a month. And of course, you can’t send a sick child to [day care], even with a sniffle. So, then you’ve got to go and collect them and make other arrangements.”
Some boutique firm leaders are fortunate, Ms Bowie reflected, to have grandparents who can help out, “but with the age of retirement going up and the cost of living with it, not all grandparents are in a position to do so and certainly not all the time”.
“So, instead we stay at home, juggle bottles with laptops and use [noise-cancelling] headphones to be heard in our Zoom meetings. Oh, and you still have to pay for the days they’re not there, by the way,” she explained.
“On a practical level, if childcare were free, it would mean we could afford to have a babysitter or nanny stay home with our son when he can’t go to childcare and we can’t stay home. This would reduce the strain on our mental and emotional reserves of working from home with a small child, which as many parents in or just having gone through lockdown will know, is significant.
“I imagine my struggle is much the same as a lot of other boutique law firm owners.
“Employed practitioners have the additional burden of managing the expectations of their employer, submitting carer’s leave requests and sadly often facing discrimination in the workplace as a result.”
How lawyers would benefit from free childcare
If and when childcare is made free, Ms Bowie said she believes there will be a marked increase in the mental health and wellbeing of lawyer parents across the board.
“We’ll see career trajectories change and the gender pay gap narrow. I expect to see that the big drop out of women around the age of 35 will stem and we’ll see more women in leadership positions in firms,” she noted.