The Work/Family Debate: Working for or against Gender Equality?

Author: Pru Goward is the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner

Like any advocate, once I become convinced of a position I am unable to see any other point of view, so it seems to me overwhelmingly obvious that the work-family debate can only help our sorry state of so-called gender equality. That is why it is the basis of my new project: Striking the Balance: Women, Men, Work and Family.

But the topic chosen for tonight, and the Fabian Society's role in hosting it, has at least prompted me to consider circumstances in which this might not be the case, where the work and family debate might work against gender equality.

After a couple of nano seconds of musing, I thought it safest to conclude that while the case for the role of work/life balance in the promotion of gender equality was overwhelming, that the word "unless", with several conditions and provisos to follow, had to be added.

Gender equality is of course concerned with equality of choice and not necessarily of outcome. It is concerned with how we address differences but not with how we achieve sameness. Equality is very much about process; the outcomes are up to us.

Having said that, obvious measures of equality include male earnings relative to female earnings, life expectancy ratios, dependency ratios, poverty ratios, health ratios, victims of crime ratios, educational outcome ratios and so on.

But in my view these measures are also indicators, rather than outcomes. What matters is the capacity of men and women, irrespective of their gender, to enjoy all their rights including the right to life but also the right to make their choices freely, from the same range of choices, and to equal respect.

The women's movement in the western world has in its most recent phase concentrated on ensuring that women could enjoy the same array of rights and choices as men in the public world; the world of work and community.

Equal rights for men and women in the private sphere were confined to those obvious fundamental rights such as the right to life, to live in safety and to reproductive and sexual health rights. This is not to belittle them;

after all sexual and reproductive rights are an important part of enabling women to enter and remain in the public world of work while the right to live in safety, including within a marriage, is fundamental to our survival. Every now and again, these battles have to be re fought and re won.

We are always surprised but perhaps we shouldn't be.

The women's movement has had great success in the world of work. Women and men have been attending universities in equal numbers in Australia since 1980, with women now outnumbering men in medicine and law.

Women in full time, ordinary time work now earn 85 cents in the male dollar, a high ratio by world standards. Female employment is high, life expectancy high.

So far so good. But not good enough.

Women are two and a half times as likely to live in poverty in their old age as men and earn, on average, only 66 cents in the male dollar. More than three quarters of all single parent households, almost always headed by women, live on welfare benefits.

Although 30% of federal parliamentarians are women, there are only two in the cabinet, the highest number ever, and no one looking remotely like being a leadership contender in the foreseeable future.

Likewise state and territory governments have returned to being male bastions after short flirtations with female premiers. Clare Martin is the exception. If you can think of more than one female CEO you're doing well because at last count there were only two and Australia's female board membership percentage of 8% is pretty sad.

There are likely to be a number of explanations.

Sexism (and in a highly gender-segregated work force like Australia's that is not hard to do), women choosing not to do high risk, punishing jobs because they do not believe it is worth it and, most significantly of all, women being compromised in their choices by the responsibilities of their private world.

Work has turned motherhood into a culprit. Because women conceive, bear and breast feed babies, their other choices, work choices, are severely compromised, often without recompense. Because women then continue to be the principal parent, driven almost entirely by cultural expectations rather than by genetic endowments, their choices remain compromised.

But it is not just parenthood that compromises the choices women make.

Caring for adult children with disabilities and for ageing parents and relatives also falls mainly to women. Often this is a rational choice on the family's part.

Having dropped out of the workforce with the children and usually re-entering earning less than their male partners, it makes sense for women to again drop out when adult children or parents need care.

And it is not even confined to caring. It is also about housework.

It is about the unrelenting nature of meals that have to be cooked, shopping and cleaning and tidying and sorting that needs to be done to keep a family from drowning in its own detritus. Understandably many women feel so overwhelmed by the detritus war and the caring campaign that working full time is out of the question; working full time at a high level with unpaid overtime and supervisory commitments is even more out of the question.

It should surprise you -and not surprise you- to learn that in twenty five years, a quarter of a century, the percentage of women in the full time workforce has risen only from 27% to 31%. Four percent in a quarter of a century. In other words we have done so badly at assisting women to combine work and family hardly any more women are doing it than in the bad old days.

The drop out rate from full time work is particularly marked in the prime child bearing years of thirty to forty, exactly the years when executive and leadership roles become available.

The alternative is to recognise that part-time management and leadership roles are viable. Perhaps the ageing of male managers will encourage this view.

The point of all this is straightforward; if we do not enable women- and for that read people- to better balance their work and family responsibilities, including by better sharing those responsibilities between family members, then real gender equality will continue to elude us.

How can it be otherwise; there are only so many hours in a day and if we impose unpaid work responsibilities unevenly upon men and women this is likely to be reflected in those equality indicators like earnings and poverty rates I mentioned earlier.

There is only so much paid maternity leave, child care subsidy and work place flexibility that women need before they pursue their choices in the public world; what they also really need is equality in the home, someone to share all the unpaid work with first.

It might even be arguable that a more equal sharing of the unpaid responsibilities between partners and family members lessens the need for extensive work place flexibilities which cost so much and are so contentious.

It certainly means these conditions will be more widely used and provided, thus becoming more acceptable and integrated into work place practice instead of being seen as special favours for women.

Getting things right at home is vital on two counts, one, it does share the load, but also many of the joys of the private world such as time with children or parents or in the garden or kitchen.

Second, as they say with social capital, because it is time voluntarily spent, it is also about respect for those around us, in particular the partner with whom these tasks are shared.

This is mutual; it is for example, about women recognizing that their male partners are more than credit cards on legs, they are fathers who deserve to spend time with their children or in the garden, and it is about men recognizing that there is more to the lives of their partners than bending over the kitchen sink or a nappy change table.

You cannot expect women with two teenage kids and an ageing parent to want to go into politics and become prime minister if they still have a full time job at home.

You cannot expect women to even take the acting job as the store manager for Woolworths if there is no one else to pick up the children from school or make the lunches for the next morning and iron the school shirts.

It is, ultimately, about time. And the number of hours in a day never changes. Equality between men and women in one half of the day is not possible without equality in the other half.

Putting aside the economic benefits of gender equality, the inequality between men and women in their private spheres is also a great source of unhappiness, whatever our grandparents generation might insist upon.

Gender inequality and the work-family struggle is about that quarter of all Australian men who work more than fifty hours a week- and don't know what to say when told they need to be mentors to their sons and daughters.

Gender inequality is working men to death in boring jobs so women can have all the good bits, about putting men who want to care on a workforce daddy track, reserved for backsliders and dullards, never to be promoted.

Gender inequality is condemning women to low paid uncertain jobs which fit around their families.

It's about men rarely feeling able to choose to be full time parents and part time workers while their spouse is the primary income earner.

It's about teenage children with nobody home or mothers anxiously sitting on the bus, worried about getting to the child care centre before it shuts, or picking a sick child up from school before they vomit again.

It's about husbands and wives angrily confronting each other over who does what- or not confronting each other and walking out.

It's about the half of marriages which end in divorce over a thirty year period- with who does what at home often to blame. It's about fathers and custody after divorce, and male role modelling.

It's about frail elderly parents ringing their children at work to tell them they've been robbed or need to see a doctor, and middle aged children unable to come because all hell is also breaking loose at work and it's a forty minute drive each way.

It is about grandfathers who say they have spent more time with their grandchildren than they ever did with their own children.

It is not about all families all the time, and certainly it is true that many families manage to avoid these stresses almost entirely, but it is the reality for countless others.

It is not the fault of women, or of men. Rather, we are at the half way point of the crossing, the most vulnerable, deepest part of the crossing that is the huge social change Australia started out on thirty years ago, when women first joined the workforce on a permanent and equal basis with men.

What is clear of course is the unsustainability of this present allocation of responsibilities. Short of banning women from attending school past year ten, women will continue to become educated, continue to enter the workforce and continue to contribute to their households.

Coincidentally, baby boomers will be retiring in record numbers, the demands of ageing parents will be born not by three or four children, but by one or two. The privatization of old age will put pressure on all of us to work for longer.

These demographic changes constitute competing pressures on families, and in particular on women.

Anyone who thinks that women will continue to bear the brunt of unpaid caring responsibilities in the face of these pressures needs to think again. In fact it's hard to believe Australia's got away with these arrangements for so long.

Women today can barely afford to drop out of work and stop paying into superannuation so they can care for their elderly parents - yet at the moment employed women make up a third of all primary carers.

Almost nine in ten elderly parents being cared for informally is being cared for by a daughter. This will change fast. Increasingly women instead will insist that responsibility for their parents is shared with their brothers and partners. ...they cannot afford to miss out on the superannuation and endanger their own retirement any more.

And if nobody does it, how does a declining percentage of tax payers foot a bill for formal care alone which is already predicted to go up 2 and a half times faster than Australia's GNP over the next forty years?

Increasingly women won't give up their jobs or promotional opportunities, increasingly they won't stay at home or work part time when the children need them- instead they'll seek to share that load with their partners, choose partners who will- or just not have children.

It is quite a dilemma- definitely barbecue stopper material.

While economic growth and the need for decent superannuation will drive women to work more, the pressures of elder care and unsupportive work environments will drive them to work less.

No wonder half of Australian marriages break up in a thirty year period. They must be a frequent early casualty of the battle between work and family. As labour economist Barbara Pocock's research shows, the 'hidden costs' of these pressures for women are significant, being a source of anger, tiredness and relationship strain in many marriages, and for some constituting grounds for divorce.

In fact it is arguable that the current review of post separation custodial arrangements and welfare support for sole parents will also drive changes to the sharing of unpaid work.

If sole supporting parents are subject to further work tests you can be sure women will be seeking, make that demanding, that their ex partners take over for part of the time so they can work.

If the Government is to be consistent, it should be part of encouraging and, where necessary, requiring this of separated fathers.

After all, it would be less than fair if government were to legislate for stricter work tests for sole parents (mostly women) without also providing family supports such as flexible work arrangements, accessible and affordable childcare and requirements that separated fathers take a much greater share of family responsibilities.

It would be interesting to see how divorcing executives, politicians, professionals and other long-hour workers responded to government requirements that they give up some of their workloads to care for their children so their ex wives can go back to work as teachers and office workers. It won't be pretty.

Of course, it is true that this might not be possible in high conflict families, or those where abuse and violence are present.

Why leave it until the point of divorce? We might actually be able to save marriages and families if men and women shared their unpaid responsibilities more equally while they were still on speaking terms.

The questions embedded in these observations are the starting point for my new national enquiry into the division of unpaid work between women and men, Striking the Balance.

Finally, it is time to return to the underlying question posed in the topic; the question of how the work family debate might work against gender equality.

The first point to make is the preposition placed between work-family is "and", not "or". Too often this debate is polarised by those who believe women are not entitled, or not able to have it all, that they can choose work, or family, but not both. Of course men may have both, but women, so the argument goes, are different.

If we allow the debate to be an either or, not and, then we can forget making this an equality argument.

How can a proposition which automatically halves the number of choices enjoyed by one sex possibly promote equality with the other?

It certainly works against equality if men are not included. For so long as the work-family debate is identified as a women's issue, it will in fact constitute part of the glass ceiling. It will be part of the oppression, rather than the liberation, of women.

Every time mothers are awarded special consideration, special entitlements and flexibilities, rather than parents, there is a trade off.

They lose in the world of work. They are the problem, not the nature of work. Their wages are lower, their chances of promotion dwindle as they set off on the mummy track. Employers are more reluctant to put them into demanding jobs.

They are put into "not absolutely necessary" jobs so that the flexibilities these women enjoy will have less impact on the company's bottom line. So they aren't put into line management jobs or jobs which will require all out effort at short notice, because the boss can't be quite sure they'll be there.

That way, when a big order comes in and the entire factory has to work on until the job is done, the contract is not jeopardized because the supervisor took a carer's day to look after a sick child. Sure, this hardly ever happens and even men get sick, but it becomes a factor in managerial thinking.

Don't get me wrong. Work and family balance is a woman's issue and it would be dishonest to deny this. It would be dishonest to deny that it is a source of discrimination against women. There are laws which are meant to police this and which my Commission upholds.

There are also many employers who work quite comfortably with mothers and we would be nowhere on the equality path without family friendly policies.

Even these flexibilities are better than no flexibilities.

Who can deny that the rapid increase of female employment in the 1990s was not driven by the spectacular increase in the availability of part time work, so that today Australia has one of the highest female part time work rates in the western world.

But how different would it be for women if men accessed these same entitlements equally.

Yes, the Mummy track might merge into the Parents' track, that is all parents and carers might be disadvantaged, but it is much harder to discriminate against your entire prime aged work force than a portion of it.

What's more, the flexibilities demanded by prime aged workers soon become industry norms not nuisances. Which is why, of course, my new project is concerned with women, MEN, work and family.

The new project is recognition that women only, work and family is really a hiding to not much better than where we were.

It is also true that the work and family debate emphasizes the differences between the current needs of men and women at work because it is so focused on children.

As we all know, women have a special role in the production of children and it is pretty hard to argue for absolutely equal treatment when it comes to child birth.

But caring, to repeat, is about more than children's or even adult children's needs.

The coming retirement of we baby boomers and the demands this will place on a high percentage of their children, means that it is important to include the responsibilities of workers with elderly parents in the work and family debate. Again, it widens the net and encourages systemic change rather than special measures.

Much of the debate about work family balance is driven by Australia's long hours culture and the importance we place on material prosperity.

Arguably if we extended the debate beyond even caring for the elderly to the need to provide people with balance whatever their circumstances, we might also improve the case for equality. The net is cast wider and the focus is no longer limited to responsibilities. It also enables people to feel in control of their circumstances, relieves the tedium of grinding work schedules and accommodates the other needs in their lives.

So General Electric, for example, no longer limits flexible hours and leave arrangements to the working mothers on its pay roll- all employees are able to negotiate hours regimes which accommodate their personal needs, whether they are caring, rock climbing, getting fit or attending a French cooking class.

True, there are dangers in this; why would an employer need to be supportive of rock climbing aspirations? Doesn't this trivialize the entire "social good" argument which underlies the importance of societies, including work places, enabling people to meet their other responsibilities such as bringing up the next generation of law abiding and productive citizens.

For this reason it is important that the debate continues to emphasise the social benefits we all derive from a better range of choices on the work-life continuum.

Giving women and men a greater range of choices is not just for their personal benefit, it also meets a number of national interest objectives such as enhanced workforce participation, reduced spending on aged care, expanded economic growth and reduced reliance on welfare.

It would be easy to end on a Fabian touch, with the observation that real gender equality should not be measured by poverty scales and income relativities.

That it should not be measured by who participates in public life, who wields power and where. And it is true that were we to place greater value on those unpaid aspects of life, gender equality would not rely so heavily on getting the work-family balance right.

Women would be valued for all the unpaid roles they perform equally with men, equality would be about respect for the human being rather than their achievements.

In this sense perhaps the focus on the work-family debate reinforces the notion that economic equality is what counts.

But this idea demands a full scale revision of human thinking- or at least of western thinking. It is beyond the scope of this project and overlooks the poverty of so many Australians, who work not to have things they don't really need, but work to make ends meet. It is however a worthy observation.

In the mean time, gender equality, even if it does focus on the redistribution of power and wealth, will have to do. And the private world of the household is the last bastion