I was at a wedding over the weekend and, as is often the case at weddings, I met quite a few new people. As is inevitably the case when meeting new people, the topic of work came up. I now have my social spiel for Women’s Agenda down pat and it was particularly well-received with one guy with whom I had already bonded over the fact we have daughters the same age. He seemed genuinely interested in the site (or at least he did a very good impression of someone feigning sincere enthusiasm).
We talked about careers, motherhood, childcare and paid parental leave and he asked a question I have considered quite a bit. “Is there so much pressure on women to have careers that it’s no longer acceptable for a woman to simply stay at home with the kids?”
I suspect my answer won’t be universally accepted or popular but the truth is this; I don’t think not working is particularly viable, for anyone, and particularly not long-term. Divorce, redundancy, illness and accidents are among the main reasons why forgoing the ability to earn income is precarious. The risk is compounded when there are dependants involved. The dire state of women’s superannuation balances is another reason not working is risky.
Very few people can afford not to work, least of all women. The paradox, however, is that it is most often women’s careers, and their financial independence, which become casualties of modern life.
One of the reasons I think the discussion about women ‘having it all’ is so passionate, and even divisive at times, is because modern women are caught between two worlds. On the one hand, at school and university, we encourage women to learn and educate themselves as if the world is their oyster. I would be very, very, surprised to learn of any younger Australian girls being told to consider nursing or teaching as the only acceptable vocations, as women were told not so long ago. Getting married no longer necessitates a woman’s resignation. The message, I am sure, younger women receive is the same given to men: pursue whatever career path you choose. Which by and large Australian women do.
Unfortunately, however, when children enter the equation it becomes clear our society is not actually well-equipped to adequately support those choices. In many respects our society is still programmed for men to earn money and women to raise kids and run homes.
Affordable and accessible childcare is elusive and presents a legitimate barrier for many mothers returning to work. Whilst technically this barrier should confront parents – the truth is it’s mothers who are more frequently impeded. In part because parental leave and child rearing remain demarcated by many as “women’s issues”. There are still far too many managers who consider motherhood and work incompatible. (The recent surge in pregnancy discrimination complaints is proof of it.)
In theory we might support the idea of women working and having a family but the reality isn’t quite so encouraging. Australia women are stuck in the middle – waging a logistical war between wanting a career and a family. The fact our female workforce participation rate lags the rest of the world, and is slipping, confirms it.
There is no doubt that our workplaces, and the cultures and attitudes entrenched in them, make it difficult for families to meet the dual responsibilities of work and home. I respect and understand that is one reason why many educated and qualified women exit paid work, sometimes altogether, for a period of time. But that choice isn’t without risk, even with the very best of intentions.
I don’t think it’s no longer acceptable for a woman to simply stay at home with the kids but I think the choice to do so needs to be made with open eyes. I do, however, think there is too much pressure on women to bear the burden for achieving balance between home and work. That responsibility needs to be shared.