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Mothers in the labour force: two steps forward?: [address to the] Valuing Victoria's Women: Women, work and family 3rd Annual Women's Summit, Melbourne, 17 July 2002.

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Mothers in the Labour Force: Two Steps Forward?

Belinda Probert, Centre for Applied Social Research RMIT University

Valuing Victoria’s Women: Women, Work and Family 3rd Annual Women’s Summit Melbourne 17 July 2002

I am very pleased to be here talk ing about women, work and family in Victoria - much happier than I would have thought possible a year ago. About 18 months ago I wrote an article for Family Matters, the magazine of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, called ‘Mothers in the labour force: A step forward and two back?’. It was a somewhat pessimistic evaluation of how many desirable policy developments that ought to be making women’s ability to combine work and family easier were being undermined by other changes. Among the problems that I identified were such things as the increasing cost of childcare, the general trend to longer and more stressful working hours, and the growth of casual employment that deprived women of access to maternity leave and reduced their ability to control their working hours.

Last year I wrote another piece1 which was not that much more positive, focussing on Australian beliefs about what is appropriate for men and women and family responsibilities - a focus on what we might call the ‘gender culture’. In this I argued that Australia had got itself into paradoxical position of essentially accepting new roles for women in the workforce - widespread assumption that women should be able to maintain long term attachment and that 50s model of full- time mothering as an alternative to work was no longer appropriate. But at the same time strong support for the idea that young children should be looked after by their parents - which almost always means their mothers.

I felt that we were in danger of ending up with the worst of all possible worlds - one where women felt they should be at work but they should be at home. One that was not going to generate pressure for the kinds of social policies that are necessary if gender roles are to be able to change in practice.

But being a political animal - and talking to many women’s groups and doing research on work/family issues and gender equity issues in a range of different industries, it was also clear that the situation was not sustainable - the metaphor that came to mind was a volcano of social and emotional pressures building up under the surface that simply would have to erupt eventually. Wherever I went, whichever

1 2002 Belinda Probert, ‘Grateful Slaves or Self Made Women, a Matter of Choice or Policy’, Australian Feminist Studies, 17, 37, March 2002


industry we studied, the same sense of tensions and frustration emerged.2 National surveys conducted by the federal government showed that it was getting harder to manage work and family, not easier.

Every sociological inch of my body told me that underpinning these experiences were changes that cannot be held back forever. And the Prime Minister, from this perspective, looked like a kind of dinosaur. The problem was how to release all this pressure - and to persuade the prime minister that in fact he was extinct..

Well - I think we can all now see that the pressure is beginning to make itself felt in irrevocable ways. This morning I woke up to hear the Prime Minister on Radio National say that extending paid maternity leave was probably a good thing! (Something one of his most senior ministers dismissed recently as middle class welfare.) And then I opened the Age and found Ross Gittins on the Opinion page telling is that the need for paid maternity leave ‘is obvious’; that ‘part time work needs to be more secure and family friendly’, and that ‘the whole panoply of government payments should be recast, basing it on theneeds of the great majority of mothers (those trying to preserve a place in the workforce) rather than the tiny minority of stay-at homes’ (The Age, 17 July 2002, p 13.)

This didn’t happen without some very hard work by women committed to policy change. Pru Goward’s discussion paper on Paid Maternity Leave to take the most obvious example turned out to be a quite impassioned argument FOR paid maternity leave with nearly all the debate to be focussed on how it should be funded and who should be eligible. The case against leaving it to the private sector and enterprise bargaining was put with force. It has certainly made a hole in the earth’s crust as far as I can see - and the steam coming out has encouraged or forced a number of important parties to come on side. A year ago I would have scoffed at the idea that the federal treasurer of the Liberal party would tell Australia on AM that we should provide a year’s paid maternity leave. Same with key business representatives who are beginning to come on side.

And all around the underlying pressures keep threatening to create new holes in the crust formed by outdated policy frameworks designed to support the old male breadwinner/female home maker model. Take the media coverage of the shortage of kids holiday program places in Victoria this last school holidays.

Now it is perhaps Australia’s declining fertility that has been a more persuasive argument with male politicians than a desire to move forward to eliminate gender discrimination in the workforce or to promote gender equality more generally. But people like Malcolm Turnbull are not simply calling for more babies - they are acknowledging the fundamentally different nature of Australia’s gender culture today and the fundamentally different aspirations and needs of young Australian women in the new millennium. (Some have speculated that it is in fact the daughters of these senior political figures who are bringing the pressures home in the most effective way.)

2 2000 Belinda Probert, Peter Ewer and Kim Whiting, ‘Work versus life: union strategies reconsidered’, Labour and Industry, Vol 11, No 1.


Whatever the mechanisms, the political context of work and family debate is changing very fast. So instead of using this forum to call for what seemed like the utopian not long ago, we now need to focus very carefully on the kinds of policies that will get developed to put the crust back together. Baby bonus was clearly a piece of jerry-rigging, but the Prime Minister was still defending it this morning. (My metaphors are getting a bit confused here, but you know what I mean).

Later in the day other speakers and the workshop format will allow us to focus on a range of specific policy measures. But what I want to do here is to look to the broader picture and to emphasise three particular things: The first is the need to keep our eye on the kinds of jobs that are available to women and the quantity of them - not just on what makes it possible for women to take them on. The second is the need to recognise the very different experiences and opportunities that confront women in an increasingly unequal society and to focus on inclusivity; and third is the need to confront head on those who constantly seek to divide women into mutually warring camps - fanning the phoney war between mothers who mother and mothers who work. And these issues are all related - in quite complex ways.

And as a point of departure in all this we still need to keep saying that there is a major role for government here - for governments at all levels from federal to local. (The importance of governments is fully canvassed in our research report commissioned by the Office of Women’s Policy for the Victorian State Government.) One response from conservative governments has been to respond to pressure for new work family models by emphasising ‘choice’ - and focussing on individual women and families sorting things out for themselves. A good example of the dangers of this can be seen in the effects of Peter Reith’s Workplace Reform Act that reduced the role of awards in controlling many aspects of employment that are critical to parents - around working hours in particular. He argued that this would allow individual workplaces the flexibility to negotiate arrangements to suit employers and employees, and to suit mothers in the workforce in particular. We now have evidence about the impact of these changes. A very small minority of women have been able to use enterprise bargaining to achieve family friendly provisions, but the majority will never get them by this method.

Nor should we rely on the business case - the argument that business will introduce good family friendly measures to reduce turnover and keep valued female staff. Again, some will, but many will not. Family friendly work practices should not be perk or a bargaining chip. The business case should of course be used wherever possible to encourage employers to see the value of new approaches to work and family issues, but we need mechanisms that ensure that all employees have access to family friendly working provisions

Leaving it to individual choice has meant an increase in high-end expensive services for high income and two income households. Private schools have built wondrously furbished childcare centres and kindergartens, while poor families have reduced their use of formal childcare3. But even mothers with a lot of money and good jobs will all

3 Meg Smith and Peter Ewer, Changes to Childcare Funding and Women’s Labour Force Participation in Western Sydney, Department for Women and the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (WSROC), August 2001.


tell you the same story about how difficult it is to balance work and family the way they WANT. They have too much work and not enough family.

At the same time there is another neglected group - a growing group who have the opposite problem of too much family and not enough work. The point I am making here of course is one about equity - and about inclusivity - about making sure that policy measures to assist women to manage work and family don’t only benefit a minority. And in the same spirit we need to take seriously the idea that work and family is not just about women and babies or pre-school children. It is also about the very big demands that teenagers can place on families, or separation and divorce, or care for aged parents. Many parents find teenage children place greater stresses on their working lives than babies.

Inclusivity means looking not only at those women who have a job and want to keep it and stay sane, but also at those who DON”T have a job but want one - and especially the very large and growing group of mothers who rely on some kind of welfare benefit because they are unable to find employment or because their partners are unable to find employment, or because they cannot find a partner who remains committed. This group too appears to find it extremely difficult to put work and family together. It has been common to pillory them as exploiting welfare - or to demonise them as immoral. But new research shows us a very different picture.

It has been common to look at women and part-time work as the best method of combining work and family responsibilities. But this is to miss a large part of the picture. It is true that the proportion of women working full time hasn’t changed over the last 35 years. However, there has been a big change in which women are working full-time - and the curious fact is that it is largely well- educated, married older women with children who are now working full-time - people like me. As Bob Gregory has argued, it seems that this growth of a new group of women in full-time employment has been occurring as another group have been crowded out of the full-time labour market - hence the stable proportion of women in full- time employment..

His research confirms the sheer number of women with children who are now receiving ‘full time’ income support from a welfare program4. Since 1966 the welfare ratio among women increased from 5 to 20 percentage points. Today one woman in five of working age is receiving full-time income support from the government. They are mainly receiving New Start Allowances, Parenting Payments Single and Partnered and Disability Pensions. This data is usually presented as illustrating a growing burden on the public purse. This is not an irrelevant issue. But equally importantly, we need to acknowledge the enormous disadvantages suffered by such families. They are poor. They lack the benefits and positive rewards of employment.

More importantly in terms of policy development, these women do not simply get on a benefit and stay there. Gregory’s research shows clearly that these women and mothers constantly attempt to become financially independent - but that these attempts often fail and they return to some kind of benefit support. Most policy emphasis has focussed on getting women to leave welfare support - but it has not paid

4 The following facts are taken from R.G Gregory, ‘The need for welfare reform - will current proposals work?’, Victorian State Government Strategy Policy Workshop Series, 12 July 2002.


enough attention to keeping them off welfare after they leave. And in this the availability of paid employment - a full-time job is a critical factor. As Gregory concludes: ‘ to give you a sense of the scale of the problem the growth of full-time jobs would need to double to avoid the increase of welfare recipients that occurred in the 1990s, and increase a further 100 per cent to undo the welfare growth of the 1990s’ (p 18).

The growth of female lone parents on welfare is an outcome of the inability to find a full-time job and to form a lasting relationship with a partner in a well paying full-time job. Yet the most recent employment figures yet again told of a continued strong decline in full- time jobs in Australia. This is a problem that seems to provoke no policy discussions at all. Nevertheless we need to recognise that for many women, they have the children but not the work, and that is their major cause for concern rather than the issue that tends to get more attention - which is how work, full- time or part-time, can be balanced with family.

This is a more important divide than that with which we are so often presented by the media - namely the divide between women who want to work and women who want to stay home. It is quite extraordinary how progressive measures to support families where the mother works are attacked by those who say either a) that this is misguided policy because most mothers of young children do not want to work or b) that it is not fair to assist mothers who work because there are mothers who don’t. Last year’s most damaging example was the columnist Cathy Sherry who responded to the Australian Catholic University’s introduction of a year’s paid maternity leave by dismissing it as a ‘furphy’. Her reasoning? That most women want policy that will allow them to stay at home for longer periods, and return to work part-time.

But anyone who claims to know ‘what women want’ is on unsafe ground; and in any case why attack a good measure because it isn’t the one you personally want? Especially if the measures are not competing for resources. Similarly, much press has been given to a survey which purports to show that the vast majority of Australian women would prefer to stay at home until their children are in primary school. This survey in fact asked one highly leading question; namely what do you think mothers of pre-school children SHOULD do? This is a very loaded question. What would the answer have been if these women had been asked: ‘In an ideal world, how would you like to balance work and family while your children are young?’ All sorts of things might have been raised: an increased role for fathers, shorter working hours, high quality, affordable childcare and pre-school among other things. We should not let this kind of manufactured divisiveness pass.

A British sociologist, Catherine Hakim, has been influential in Australia in promoting the idea that women can essentially be divided into three distinct types: the minority career focussed women who will mostly work full-time (with or without children); the minority home-focussed women who will leave the workforce after the birth of their children; and the majority ‘adaptive’ type who shape their working lives round their families, generally meaning a gradual return to part-time work. But this characterisation is peculiarly static, and takes no account, for example, of the very high rate of marriage breakdown and the impact this has on mothers behaviour and attitudes. In these rapidly changing times, many of us would alter and adjust our aspirations according to changing opportunities and experiences. Indeed, a central


theme of our research report5 is the need to acknowledge changing families - the significance of lower rates of marriage, higher rates of separation, increased numbers of sole parents, lower rates of childbearing and so on. Malcolm Turnbull wants us to marry younger, have more children, and stay partnered - and he is right to focus on the importance of financial support in promoting these goals. But he is also probably whistling in the wind. We need to support parents and their children, whatever sort of family they are in - and support them in becoming economically independent by combining adequately paid work with parenting, whether they achieve this alone or in couples.

As we are all becoming increasingly aware Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world in policy aimed to help women balance work and family responsibilities. But this means there is an enormous opportunity for governments, including the Victorian State government, to develop innovative policy and to learn from the wide range of experience overseas. And there can be little doubt that such policy development will be popular too. Women are fed up with the inadequate and inconsistent provisions that exist. The rumbling and grumbling that is going on under the surface is not going to die away - it is much more likely that the volcano of pent up pressures will erupt.

5 Balancing work and family responsibilities: policy implementation options, a report for the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet and Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development, by Sarah Charlesworth, Iain Campbell and Belinda Probert, May 2002.