Georgina Dent Reporter

Georgina reports on the legal profession, management, marketing, diversity, retail and emerging businesses. Before joining BRW, she worked as a lawyer in a commercial firm.

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Holding the baby

Published 02 February 2012 05:01, Updated 02 February 2012 13:23

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Spending $5 million opening a day care centre for 114 children might seem an odd thing to do for a bio-pharmaceutical company, but last year ASX-listed CSL Limited – which posted a profit of $951 million for the 10/11 year – did just that. The business decision came after an internal survey in 2006 showed 63 per cent of its employees who had taken maternity leave in the past five years were no longer with the company. It was an anomaly for the business, which experiences minimal staff turnover, and a worry as well, given that its workforce is dominated by women.

“Around 60 per cent of our managerial and professional staff are female,” CSL human resources director Jill Lever says. “These are well qualified, well-trained, valuable employees and there’s a real cost in losing them. And it’s more than just the direct and indirect costs of hiring. Constant turnover erodes operational excellence.”

After doing some research and consulting with past and present employees, the company discovered that the shortage of suitable childcare was a genuine impediment for parents returning to work.

“We heard horror stories about waiting lists, problems with quality, limited choice and for many parents at the end of the day, it was all too hard,” Lever says.

This feedback prompted the decision to open a childcare centre at its head office in Victoria.

“We looked for ways to address this issue with positive consequences, and offering quality, accessible childcare is a powerful way to effect attraction and retention of staff,” Lever says. “We’re able to support staff through something stressful, difficult and distracting and there’s the intangible benefit of employees seeing us put our money where our mouth is.”

The centre, named Thinking Kids Children’s Centre, opened in Victoria in September 2011, with 114 places for children aged up to six years old. The not-for-profit operator Early Childhood Management Services manages the facility, which is now self-sufficient. At the opening, CSL chief executive Dr Brian McNamee explained the investment.

“Talent is always in limited supply and we can’t afford to lose educated and trained employees who want to work but whose choice is impacted by a lack of childcare.”

Figures from the Bureau of Statistics show that as at June 2011 there were almost 70,000 Australian mums out of the workforce solely because they couldn’t find affordable childcare – this represents 15 per cent of all unemployed females. A further 13 per cent of respondents would work more if they could access childcare.

Leadership consultant and SheEO blog founder Jen Dalitz first encountered this problem as an employer. She was an executive at MLC and her star performer was eager to return to work from maternity leave but was having trouble finding appropriate childcare. “Our own on-site centre told her the wait would be more than 12 months and I just figured it couldn’t be true,” Dalitz says. “I marched down there to have a word with the director, who promptly showed me the list and pointed out there was nothing I could do.”

It took more than a year for the employee to return, and even then, it wasn’t full-time as they both wanted.

“It’s ludicrous to have a talent pool that wants to work and contribute to productivity but can’t get over the structural barriers to do so,” Dalitz says. “We can’t leave employers in a position where they recruit women, invest in their development, do the right thing in holding their jobs open during parental leave and then ask them to hope for the best in terms of the employee having access to childcare so they can return to work,” Dalitz says.

Despite the ABS figures and supporting anecdotes, officially there is no shortage of places in childcare. According to the Child Care Vacancies Quarterly, released by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, 91 per cent of reporting centres have spots available.

This discrepancy is likely to be explained by the difference between availability and affordability of positions. A Commonwealth Bank study last year found that one in four families with children in care had one parent who works for no financial gain. Eleven per cent of those actually pay to work because their childcare fees outweigh their earnings, even with government assistance.

The federal government contributes up to $7500 in fees per child in care each year. It is described as a 50 per cent rebate, but in capital cities, where childcare costs $100 a day, for a working parent with one child in day care five days a week, the rebate constitutes closer to one-third of fees.

Author and recruitment specialist Kate Sykes says many parents make the choice to effectively work for free because they can’t afford to leave the workforce. “The cost of care can be prohibitive, but on the upside it keeps them in the workplace,” Sykes says. “When a female takes more than two years out of work, it has a huge impact on her career. It becomes much harder to get back in. It shouldn’t, but it does.”

Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency director Helen Conway says individuals who seek to combine a career with parenting will be disadvantaged until tackling the problem becomes a priority for employers.

“It’s a question of companies being realistic about what comprises life,” Conway says. “Whether it’s men or women who do the caring is irrelevant; they shouldn’t be disadvantaged.”

This will be achieved only when business invests in structures to deliver on it.

“Show me a business initiative that doesn’t require investment upfront?” Conway says. “I spent 18 years in boardrooms and I’ve seen initiatives implemented to achieve a goal through leadership, focus and accountability. If this was a priority business would apply the same framework, but it’s a peripheral issue.”

In time, Conway expects more businesses will make the discovery CSL did – that if they want to keep talented mothers in the workplace they will have to tackle the problem themselves.

“The tipping point will come as the percentage of female graduates increases,” Conway say. “Aside from any arguments about gender equality, diversity or even national productivity and competitiveness, it will be the issue of accessing talent which is compelling.”

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