Somehow in 2021, when talking about gender inequality, the gender pay gap and the reasons why women are disadvantaged in the workplace we still have to talk about childcare.

Women remain more likely to take on care work, and other unpaid work, in the home, and we still do not have adequate provision of high quality, affordable and accessible childcare.

This is not a small or isolated problem. The Covid-19 pandemic saw the burden of care fall heavily on women. The IFS found that during the first lockdown the average working mother was able to do just 35 per cent of the number of uninterrupted work hours that the average father did, compared to 60 per cent in 2014/15 (IFS, 2020).

Childcare provision in Wales is a complex patchwork that is too often inaccessible, inflexible and expensive. Eligibility is linked to the age of your child, whether you work and where you live. This is made worse by a lack of joined up policy in relation to early years education and childcare, which can result in free provision being delivered differently between different local authority areas.

READ MORE: What are parties offering education and young people?

In Wales in 2020 just 7 per cent of local authorities reported having sufficient childcare in all areas for children under two, and just 21 per cent reported having enough childcare for working parents in all areas (Family and Childcare Trust, 2020).

Childcare costs can take up a significant proportion of women’s earnings; the cost of a full-time place for a child aged up to two takes up more than half the take-home pay of a typical full-time working woman (Chwarae Teg, 2019).

These issues can be particularly acute for women on low incomes. The costs of childcare are prohibitive for all but women with above average earnings. And while the childcare offer of 30 hours free provision per week for three- to four-year-olds is valued by those working over 30 hours, with four out of ten women working part-time it’s not always a good fit for women on the lowest incomes (Chwarae Teg, 2019).

We are not the only nation where access to childcare continues to affect women’s engagement with the labour market, it's a global issue. But do any countries get this right? Well yes, or at least there are those who are doing better than us, who can offer lessons to inform better childcare provision here.

Successful approaches tend to treat early years education and care as a single policy area, support parents to work full-time and co-locate childcare services, which can ease the pressure on parents who are balancing work with home-life. Support with costs is critical, particularly when we consider that childcare in the UK is among the most expensive in the world (World Economic Forum, 2019)

Our Manifesto for a Gender Equal Wales sets out our vision for a Wales in which women of all backgrounds and experiences are able to achieve and prosper. This vision is simply unachievable unless we solve the childcare issue, which is why we are calling for a number of changes to childcare provision.

We must ensure that childcare is seen as a critical part of our infrastructure, as critical as roads and rail to enabling people to engage with the labour market and go about their lives, while also educating our children to give them the best start in life. Too often money spent to provide or subsidise childcare is still seen as ‘spend’ rather than investment.

Following the Senedd election, the incoming Welsh Government must commit to delivering an integrated early childhood education and care system. One that ensures high educational attainment while also being affordable and accessible to support women to enter and progress in work.

READ MORE: Support bubbles for yound parents too little too late

We believe that the goal should be to provide free, good quality, full-time childcare for all children up to the age of four, while also investing in wraparound childcare and holiday care.

To help deliver this we are calling for early years education and care to be brought into a single department within Welsh Government, to ensure more joined-up thinking and to strengthen ministerial oversight.

We want to see alignment of qualifications, regulation and inspection across early years and childcare provision and investment in the co-location of early years and childcare provision in a single setting, to make it easier for working parents.

Improving access to information about childcare support is also key, which is why we want to see a one-stop-shop created so that parents can get clarity on what childcare support is available to them, regardless of whether it’s a Welsh Government, UK Government or Local Authority administered scheme.

Some of these changes will take time, and they will cost money. But the simple fact is, we cannot afford not to invest in an early years education and childcare system that delivers fair and equitable outcomes for children and parents. If the next Welsh Government are serious about tackling inequality and about delivering a gender equal Wales, then they need to get serious about solving the childcare issue.

It’s simply been an issue for too long.

We are providing a voice to people from across Wales. If you value what we are doing, become a subscriber today.