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The infrastructure investment needed for gender equality

Infrastructure investment too often means large-scale construction projects when what women need is funding for affordable childcare, says Zara Nanu

Mother working from home on her laptop while taking care of her child at home

This year’s International Women’s Day theme set by the United Nations is ‘Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress’. This occasion calls for a more nuanced exploration of what investment truly means for gender equality, and I would like to put the spotlight on infrastructure.

Beyond the traditional scope of infrastructure – bridges, motorways, and power stations – lies a domain critical for empowering women in the business world: the infrastructure of childcare and support services.

The state of childcare infrastructure

Typically, when we consider infrastructure investment, our minds turn to large-scale physical projects with workers (mainly men) in hi-vis jackets moving about heavy machinery and large quantities of cement.

However, the backbone of gender equality and women’s progress in business also critically hinges on access to robust support systems like safe transportation, health care, and most notably, childcare. In the UK, where 74 per cent of women bear the primary responsibility for childcare, the lack of accessible, affordable childcare services directly impacts their ability to participate in business. This gap in infrastructure investment significantly influences career choices and long-term economic participation for a substantial portion of the population.

As I was exploring this infrastructure angle I spoke to Charly, an entrepreneur and mum of nine-month-old twins in Bristol. Charly and her partner started looking for childcare from when she was 16 weeks pregnant. The only option they found for both children is from when they will be 18 months old, and at that point, they will be looking at a cost of £2,000/month for three days of care. The cost and lengthy timeline is unattainable.

Evaluating the impact

The UK’s planned investment in infrastructure and construction projects stands at £164bnfor 2023-24, contrasting starkly with the £4bnallocated to early years childcare. The government’s recent initiative to offer 15 to 30 hours of free childcare weekly marks a step forward but falls short of addressing the underlying investment issues.

With childcare providers struggling for sustainability amidst rising operational costs, and a 50 per cent annual increase in nursery closures, the system’s inadequacies are evident. This misalignment not only affects individual families, like entrepreneur Charly and her twins but also reflects a broader economic and social oversight.

A call for strategic investment

Treating childcare as critical infrastructure could revolutionise the framework for women’s empowerment and economic participation. Similar to the indispensable role of schools and hospitals, universally accessible childcare could serve as a cornerstone for accelerating progress for women in business. Reports, including one from KPMG, suggest that rectifying the childcare system could potentially add £11bn to the UK economy. This is a significant return on investment. Beyond mere numbers, this investment represents a gateway to enhanced economic resilience, diversity, and innovation by enabling more women to pursue and sustain their careers.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day under the banner of ‘Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress,’ it’s important we broaden our understanding of what investment means in the context of gender equality. Reimagining and reallocating resources towards childcare as critical infrastructure is not just a policy adjustment but a strategic move towards a more inclusive and prosperous society.

For businesses and governments alike, the message is clear: investing in women requires building the foundations upon which they can thrive both as professionals and as caregivers. The time for such investment is now, promising not just progress for women but for the economy and society at large.

Zara Nanu is a serial entrepreneur and a member of the women’s leadership board at Harvard Kennedy School

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