An equal footing still a step too far

By Jessica Irvine | Sep 05, 11 11:42 AM

We were supposed to be there by now. Progress has been made, but progress has stalled. What more do we need to do to be equal in the workforce?

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 was 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,'' says Barbara Pocock, director of the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia. ''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.

Despite a skirt-wearing Prime Minister, Governor-General, state premiers and big bank chief executive, the reality is that 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 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 that 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 Aged 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 do the lion's share of domestic work, including household chores and caring duties. Seventy per cent of working mothers say they often or always feel pressed for time.

''We really need lots of change, both at home and the workplace,'' says Pocock. ''There is a really powerful gendered culture in Australia around domestic work.''

She advises young working women to 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 a toddler. Despite a busy career, Isaacs 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 gotten smarter with their time, the expectation is still there that they'll manage the unpaid work.''

Isaacs, who established her own recruitment company at 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 could be whatever they wanted, only to crash head-long 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,'' says Baird. 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, Baird 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.

View the full article here.

This article originally featurned on www.smh.com.au on August 27,2011 and was written by journalist Jessica Irvine.

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