Language, Power and Childcare: Is the Language used in the Debate regarding Childcare limiting our Efforts?

by Samuel Hill
20th May 2015

One of the crowning ideas in George Orwell’s ubiquitous 1984, was ‘Newspeak’. A new language that limited the extent of what people could say, and therefore think.  If you could reduce language to only the words that you want the public to say, then you would eventually limit what they are able to think, for language is the expression of thoughts, and thoughts in turn are created with language. If you limit the resources the builder has, then you limit what s/he can build. Owell’s message was clear enough: language is powerful.

Language is so powerful in fact, that it alters our reality; often in ways of which we are unaware. One of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, dedicated the latter part of his life to the study of grammar and ordinary anguage. Wittgenstein became a precursor to philosophy’s ‘linguistic turn’: a massive shift in methodology that arguably had not been seen since Immanuel Kant in the 1700s. Well before Orwell penned 1984 Wittgenstein had profoundly stated that ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world’. There is a strong link between what can be said and what can be thought.

I was reminded of this fact whilst watching ABC’s 7:30 Report broadcasted on Wednesday the 25 of February 2015. The primary segment was regarding proposed changes to the Childcare system as outlined in the Childcare and Early Childhood Learning Report by the Australian Government Productivity Commission, released for public scrutiny on the 20th of February 2015. The 7:30 Report interviewed several mums who were considering returning work, but were worried whether it was achievable, both financially and personally. The following interview with the then Minister for Social Services Scott Morrison further explicated the challenges that this policy area faces.

In hindsight I had been psychologically prepped to respond to this episode due to a conversation I had earlier with some friends regarding their own challenges with childcare. Bree and Luke are parents of two young children, and she wants to – and will – ‘return to work’. The challenges they face closely mirrored the content of the 7:30 Repot, apart from one key difference. Whilst the 7:30 Report asked the question of how women could achieve a work life balance, and what policy would be required to achieve this, Bree and Luke asked how men could achieve a work life balance; enabling men to be at home enables women greater freedom to return to the workplace. The same problem was being addressed, but different questions were being asked, as such the search for answers was also distinctive.  Bree and Luke argued that if men do not have the flexibility in the workplace, the burden of the work/family dichotomy will fall squaring on the shoulders of women. After the 7:30 Report aired, Bree sent me an incensed message: ‘Classic example of what we were discussing. Not one dad shown or interviewed about Childcare and no mention of women getting back to work by men staying at home!’ She was right, and in the following discussion with Minister Morrison, there was no talk of it either.

The Prime Minister’s language best exemplifies this point:

‘It’s a very useful report – the Productivity Commission report into childcare – and we’ve been saying for years now that if we want to give Australian families a fair go, we’ve got to give mothers in particular a real choice to have a family and be in the workforce and that means a better childcare system.’ (Prime Minister, Doorstop interview, 20 February 2015, available at:

The Productivity Commissions’ target is indeed a higher proportion of women engaged in the workforce, which by its own estimation, will only marginally increase (by 1.2%). What if the target for families was in fact a higher proportion of men leaving either completely or partially from the workforce?   The message is subtle, but clear: this is a mum’s problem, not a problem for parents.

There was no discussion regarding men being liberated to stay at home with children, or at the very least, pushing for more flexible work hours. The 7:30 Report was trying to solve a puzzle, but a vital piece was missing. The Report was asking the wrong question and as such its quest for an answer was misguided from the beginning.

I would like to say that this discussion is new, but it is not. Both feminists and men’s right activists have lamented this state of affairs for years.[1] But despite the work of these prominent commentators, the discussion remains terribly shortsighted. The subtext of these discussions is a hidden assumption: that men should not have to compromise career for family, but women need to. We correctly believe that having children will require career sacrifices, but have determined that this is a sacrifice women will have to make. That’s just the way it is. Furthermore, as the debate is driven by this subtext, the language reflects and reinforces the state of affairs; our language defines and strengthens our discussion parameters. The more we use this language the more it becomes entrenched in the public consciousness, and the narrower our vision will become.

Thankfully, this state of affairs is a far stretch from the sinister actions of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s novel; but it is a prime example of the power of language to blind us to possibilities. I do not believe that there is a conspiracy afoot, whereby men, so attached to their careers have consciously removed themselves from the debate. There is no Ministry for Patriarchal Advancement seeking to undermine the efforts of working mums; but there is a narrative at work here that can be labelled patriarchal: the assumption that it is women – and not men – who need to sacrifice their careers for family. It is a well-known narrative, and if we are really pursuing change in this area, it is a narrative that needs to be scrutinized. This is an important question that needs to be addressed, not ignored. If we really do believe in creating a work life balance for working mothers, then we cannot solve this problem without addressing the same for working fathers. In order to solve the problem before us, I believe we need to follow the lead of Wittgenstein and make sure we are asking the correct question in the first place.[2]

Thanks to Bree Willsmore for her contribution to the writing of this article.


Further Reading:

Annabel. Crabb, The Wife Drought, North Sydney: Random House Australia, 2014.

Cordelia. Fine, Delusions of Gender : The Real Science behind Sex Differences, London: Icon, 2010.

Grayling, A. C. Wittgenstein. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press, 1988.