We were supposed to be there by now. Daughters born to the feminist firebrands of the 1970s were supposed to smash the glass ceiling that so frustrated their mothers and assume their rightful place beside men in the workforce.
Progress has been made. Three decades ago just one in three Australian workers were female. Today women make up almost half – 45 per cent – of the workforce. Answering the clarion call to work, women have seized their economic independence and boosted Australia’s economic growth and living standards in the process.
But progress has stalled. A new generation of 20- and 30-something working women, while better educated than their male colleagues, continue to earn less, labour in lower-status positions and struggle to juggle the demands of childcare and work.
“We got the job, but we didn’t give up the babies,” Barbara Pocock, director of the Centre for Work and Life at the University of South Australia, says. “We’ve doubled up the load on women. Some women are saying too much is being asked of us.”
Marian Baird, professor of employment relations at the University of Sydney, agrees women’s progress has been “disappointingly patchy”. “Lately I think we have stalled and even gone backwards in some areas.”
Recent pay figures suggest the gap between male and female full-time earnings is as wide as it has been in more than two decades, with women working fewer hours, in lower-paid industries and in lower-status jobs.
Next Thursday marks the day an average full-time female worker would have to keep working to so that she can earn the same as the average full-time male did last financial year.
Despite a skirt-wearing Prime Minister, Governor-General, premiers and a big bank chief executive, women still struggle to break into the senior decision-making roles in the workforce.
The reasons are complex and many, to do with continued childcare responsibilities, blatant discrimination and a lack of flexible work options. Women themselves have also been blamed, labelled too timid and lacking in confidence. Failure by women to negotiate is thought to be behind the surprising gap in male and female earnings that opens up in the first year of work.
But such pop psychology rarely takes into account why women act this way.
As skills shortages in male-dominated industries such as mining and construction begin to squeeze the economy and an ageing population places increasing strain on the government budget, economists say it is time to ask again how women could be better deployed in the workforce.
Where previous generations of feminists saw the right to a career as a moral issue, today’s public policymakers view increasing women’s participation as an economic imperative.
Economists at Goldman Sachs estimate closing the gap between male and female participation rates would boost Australia’s annual economic production by 13 per cent and help cool inflation pressure, meaning lower interest rates than otherwise.
While an affront to the original spirit of the cause, this shifting focus at least raises the serious chance something might actually be done to establish women as equals in the workforce.
IF WOMEN are to thrive at work, however, one thing is abundantly clear – they’re going to need some help around the house. The emergence of so-called sensitive new age men has done little to lighten the domestic load on women.
According to Pocock, despite decades of exhortations to men to help more, “there has been very, very slight change in the distribution of domestic duties, with women doing twice as much as men”. Even in very young couples, women continue to do the lion’s share of domestic work, including household chores and caring duties. As a result, 70 per cent of working mothers report they often or always feel pressed for time.
“We really need lots of change, both at home and the workplace,” Pocock says. “There is a really powerful gendered culture in Australia around domestic work.”
She advises young working women to sit down and have a serious conversation with their partner about who does what in the home.
It’s a conversation women seem surprisingly reluctant to have.
Emma Isaacs, the 32-year-old chief executive of networking group Business Chicks, is on maternity leave to care for her three-week-old baby and toddler. Despite a busy career, Isaccs says she has always felt pressure to assume responsibility for housekeeping.
“I know in my instance, even though I outsource the cleaning and shopping … it still falls back on to me to organise. So if the cleaner’s on holidays, the house ain’t cleaned. If I don’t do the online shop each week, the family doesn’t eat. On the days my toddler is in care, I’m the one who gets the call if she’s sick. So while women may have got smarter with their time, the expectation is still there that they’ll manage the unpaid work.”
Isaacs, who established her own recruitment company at age 19 and sold it at 25, says she has struggled to balance career and motherhood. “There’s no doubt that having children means pressing either pause or stop on your career/business for a while. Idealistically I’d love to purport that we can have it all, but there are harsh realities and practicalities that prevent this.”
Isaacs belongs to the generation of women described by the federal sex discrimination commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, as “late-onset feminists”.
These are the daughters of first-generation feminists who were told from birth they can be whatever they wanted, only to crash headlong into the barrier of childbirth.
“Young women have this enthusiasm and sense that everything’s equal and then the reality hits, usually at about 30,” Professor Baird says. Biological necessity coincides awkwardly with the point at which women are just beginning to feel established in their careers and consider their next move. As men continue to climb the career ladder, women are forced to take time out just as they’re really hitting their straps. Society must provide more support to women with children if they are going to increase their participation in work, she says.
“There is a point at which you can’t change women any more. We can’t stop them having babies. But the labour market also requires women to be at work . They contribute enormous human capital to the labour market.
“I think women have changed as much as they can, except they could be more demanding, more stroppy. Women are surprisingly acquiescent.”
In their book Women Don’t Ask, US economists Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever found men were more than four times as likely as women to negotiate their first salary. This opened up from day one a pay gap that can cost women more than $500,000 in lost earnings by the time they are 60.
But, according to academic psychologist at the Melbourne Business School and author of Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, Cordelia Fine, society habitually forgets to ask the obvious question about why women are acting this way.
“The behaviour of men and women is … more similar than we tend to think,” Fine says. “But when there are differences, it’s always important not to rush to assume that it’s because of some intrinsic difference between the sexes – ‘women just don’t care as much about money’ or ‘women just aren’t as ambitious’ – but to ask if there might be other, external reasons.”
Fine points to experiments by Harvard University’s Hannah Riley Bowles and colleagues which found women are treated more harshly than men when they initiate negotiations for higher pay. “Asking for more money breaks the prescription on women to be nice,” Fine says.
Such subtle gender stereotypes affect women in every part of their engagement with the workforce and, Fine says, “it can be difficult to perform some roles without risking backlash by breaking too many feminine gender norms.
“With still such different contexts and circumstances for men and women, it’s simply not possible to compare the choices they make and draw confident conclusions about the sexes’ different inner natures,” she says.
Indeed, gender stereotypes are a two-way street. While children turn women into part-time workers, they also turn men into overworked stress-heads, Pocock says. Compared with a decade ago, men with preschool-age children now work an average of 5.7 more hours a week, or almost one full extra day a week.
Pocock says this creates risks for both sexes. The one-third of women who will ultimately be divorced from their husbands risk living retirement in poverty. But men face the even more immediate risks of overwork, depression and poor cardiovascular health.
The chief executive of the Diversity Council of Australia, Nareen Young, says men and women need to re-evaluate the way they think about part-time and flexible work options.
“Flexibility will be mainstream when men do it. We need to have a long look at how men feel about that. Lack of respect for flexible work patterns is really holding women back,” she said.
Perhaps savvy women have simply faced up to a reality men refuse to face – that the traditional model of full-time work means less time spent with family. Almost half of working women work part-time.
Jessica Brown, a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, says while this is often viewed as a negative thing for women, arguably it offers them more flexibility and the opportunity for greater well-being than men. “I feel a bit sorry for the blokes,” Brown says. “They don’t have that same sort of ability to balance work and family”.
In limiting themselves to part-time work, women are often making a rational choice, responding to the incentives they face.
“The family tax benefit system does encourage second-income earners to work part-time. Women also make a lifestyle choice. A lot of women make a very conscious and rational decision to limit their hours, to not take a promotion, to perhaps choose jobs which they know are not going to spill over into after hours, and this is how they see balancing work and family working out.”
If government wants to tempt more women into the workforce it must focus on removing the disincentives mothers face to work, including harsh penalties that can apply if a woman increases her hours, both incurring tax and losing out on family payments.
Making affordable childcare available, particularly for single mothers, would also help. “Childcare is very expensive, particularly for low-income families,” Brown says.
Government and industry could also do more to tempt women to consider non-traditional careers in highly-paid industries such as mining and construction.
Alison Morley, the part-time chief executive of the mining exploration company Brumby Resources, says there are highly-paid and highly-skilled jobs on offer for women, if only the industry could tempt year 10 girls to open their eyes.
Morley trained as an underground mine geologist, moved to a consulting role to have children and now is perhaps Australia’s only part-time CEO.
“In mining I have managed to get that flexibility … When you develop those technical skills and you’re in demand then you have the power to negotiate.”
Helping women to make the most of economic opportunities on offer will require both men and women to think outside the box.
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