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What's the role of women's policy in a government committed to family values? Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) Coopers and Lybrand Seminar Series, Hyatt Hotel, Canberra, Friday 20 June 1997: speech

OSW recognises that all women are not the same.

The Office of the Status of Women is about diversity, opportunity and choice.

Ethnicity, age, marital status, life experiences, geographical location, to name but a few factors, affect the opportunities and lifestyles of women.

Whether women describe themselves as femocrats (or feminists) or not is irrelevant. The Office seeks to give women increased visibility and opportunity, and to ensure that women will not be placed at a disadvantage.

The primary role of the Office is to provide key policy advice on a range of priority issues to the Prime Minister and the Minister Assisting, Senator Jocelyn Newman.

In my first few months, I have come to realise that OSW now has an opportunity to link more broadly into the day to day business of government.

I see much broader policy and consultative roles for OSW. Roles of critical importance, aimed at avoiding duplication, and ensuring the concerns and priorities of all Australian women are met across the whole of government policy development, decision making and implementation processes.

So what does women's policy have to do with family values?

The Office of the Status of Women has never believed that women's policy and family values were mutually exclusive.

And furthermore, family values are not about sending women back into the kitchen - unless that's where they choose to be.

The government recognises there are many different kinds of families. And that it is not for government to say what a family is.

Clearly, this government has put itself forward as supporting family values, however, one of the things I would like to emphasise is that the Prime Minister does not see family values as different from, or separate to, women's values.

Many people talk as if a polarity exists between 'what is woman' and 'what is family'. The polarity is a mythology. Most women's lives are about managing roles within families.

Women are members of families. Women often head families. Women are the primary child rearers. Many women later go on to do the care giving.

The same might be said about men - although it is still not said frequently enough.

Policies need to 'gender blend' - polarising ('what is men's' and 'what is women's') is not productive, and not profitable.

The issue of polarity is nowhere more evident than in discussions about women and work and balancing family responsibilities.

But, there are some realities we have to face. Women have babies. No one should have to apologise for having babies, or for wanting to stay home, or for wanting to work.

Women (valued members of the paid workforce) continue to do more unpaid work in the home than their male counterparts.

As the Minister, has said, "Some women are thriving, and some are finding that life is not getting any easier." And, debate about balancing work and family responsibilities continues.

The influx of women into the labour market has meant the number of workers who have to juggle work and family responsibilities has increased.

Over 40 per- cent of both men and women in the labour force have dependent children.

Issues such as caring are a family responsibility - not the responsibility of women alone. This is a partnership - it's for everybody.

"I thought I was lucky to have it."

Thirty years ago, Australia's workforce was largely made up of full- time, male employees. Women generally only entered the workforce for relatively short periods of time - usually 'leaving' once they married.

And then, in the early '70s, Australia signed an important ILO convention. Women who worked in banks, insurance companies and the public service could no longer be sacked for getting married.

Young women today expect workplaces to be family friendly. They expect work and workplaces to adapt to their needs, not the other way around. So should young men - and they will.

The average age of new mothers is now just over 29 years.

Many factors will contribute to further changes in labour force composition, and resultant work and family considerations, as we head into the next century

our ageing population and the impact this has as oldercare responsibilities emerge;

the increasing participation by women in higher education;

delays in having families which means many women will have progressed their careers further.

The Minister understands the need to talk about these and other issues affecting women and families and, through OSW, the channels of communication are open from both within government and without.

OSW works cooperatively with all government departments, business and industry in addressing the changing needs of women now, and in the future.

OSW recognises the government's move toward mainstreaming as a chance to share responsibility for increasing opportunity and choice for women.

I am not for a moment suggesting we stop to focus exclusively on women's needs. What I am saying is that addressing the needs of women is not just good for business - it is good for the community.

In getting the job done - whatever the job is - it simply makes sense to consider and acknowledge everyone's needs.

For a majority of women, their place in the paid workforce is a dominant part of their lives.

If a woman chooses to work outside the home, then the workplace should be geared to supporting the many roles a woman has, that is, as mother, wife and employee - roles which all have a public as well as a private benefit.

The introduction of more flexible work conditions, such as the availability of permanent part- time work, flexible working hours and special leave provisions, can make balancing the roles easier.

1.2 mil women work part- time. Many say they work part- time hours for reasons related to child care.

Teleworking and home- based work in various forms has become a real option, both to meet short term, emergency needs, or as a long term arrangement.

Women are setting up their own businesses at the rate of 3 percent a year, one and one half times the rate for men.

The new industrial relations legislation opens the way for flexibility in negotiating different working arrangements for different stages of the working life.

Arrangements which meet the varying needs of employees who must balance family and work, and employers who have often been unable to strike their own balance between equal opportunity and realistic outcomes.

There are any number of practical ideas which can be adapted to the needs of the individual, as well as individual workplaces

working the same number of hours but in a different pattern;

job sharing;

home- based work on one or more days;

a parent's room.

Many employers already recognise that people are a key resource in the organisation, particularly as their employees gain experience and skills.

These employers understand that family friendly policies and working patterns contribute to workplace productivity and profitability.

How are you going? What does equity and diversity mean to you? Are you making the best use of your staff?

OSW provides a focus

Interestingly, even with all the improvements, opportunities and gains of the last few decades, the lives of many women have not changed all that much.

Challenges for the future include continuing legislative change that recognises the diversity of women; and their rights to opportunity and choice.

In meeting these challenges, we are extremely fortunate to have an Office of the Status of Women.

However, simply because OSW exists doesn't absolve government, or business and industry, of their part in helping to improve the status of women.

In locating the Office of the Status of Women within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the government clearly recognises that expert advice on gender issues is a necessity.

However, this government has made a commitment to a 'whole government' approach to women's services. And, we need to look beyond the Office to all government areas for assistance in advancing the role of women.

I, for one, will be putting up the challenge for other government departments, and business and industry in the private sector, to come up with the goods - to take responsibility for addressing specific issues which affect women.

It's time to work smarter; time to consider what sort of Australian society we want to live in, and what sort of Australian society we want to hand on to future generations.

After all, women in Australia aren't asking for much more than a fair go, dignity and respect.

( ed. You will be introduced by Merran Dawson. 36. Married. Joined Coopers & Lybrand 1981, after graduating with Bachelor of Commerce from Wollongong. Made partner of Coopers & Lybrand 1995. Responsible for Computer Assurance Services division in Canberra.)