For women to have it all, we have to change the way we work

Trials of a working mother: Kirstie Marshall was at the centre of controversy after she breastfed her 11-day-old baby in state parliament in 2003. AAP

Who said we could have it all, anyway?

This notion is a media myth that somehow translated the idea that women should not be excluded from any sphere on the basis of sex into the sexy but fallacious view that we could have it all. The statistics show relatively slow progress of women into top positions, despite our higher level of education and undoubted skills. In a recent article in the Australian Financial Review, Australian Human Resources Institute president Peter Wilson said it was “sort of an Oprah philosophy to life … that you can have it all”. “I’m an economist,” he said. “I know there are scarce resources and you have to make choices.”

True, but why are women of child bearing age still having to limit their choices? All we ask is that our choices were not constrained by gender, which seems a feasible aim. However, we knew in the ‘70s that achieving this aim would require changes in both the laws and workplaces structures and cultures. We achieved the first, but somehow the second escaped us, so the macho workplace models of the '70s somehow became more entrenched.

This we didn’t expect. People forget that the '70s optimism also involved an assumption that technology would soon reduce full time paid work hours for all, so men and women would have more capacity to allocate their time more equitably to outside the job tasks. We did not expect the arrival of neoliberal, antisocial paradigms over the next two plus decades, which undermined the legitimacy of socially collective collaborative models of care.

The dream of the liberation of women required changing masculinised over-valuing of male skills and long paid work hours. Instead, economic individualism fed into new workplaces, with more extended hours exacerbating gendered decisions about who takes on care needs, using the mantra of choices to hide social values.

For many women in the workplace, life is a juggling act. Garry Knight

The idea we had of sharing responsibilities and resources communally was lost from the political agenda. Competitiveness was the new ideology, and so workplaces made it clear that workplace success required longer hours and less intrusion of personal issues. So women were welcome in the workforce if they aped male models or accepted that to work shorter hours meant they accepted lower status jobs. In a form of equity, men who take on care responsibilities that interfere with their job availability, are also penalised.

At the launch of the inaugural Women in NSW annual report on Tuesday, former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward, now a NSW MP in the Barry O'Farrell government, was right to say that it is almost impossible to be a good parent and a “good” high level worker, in present employment terms.

If the “good parent” needs time off to care for sick children or do school pickups, there are few employers accept this as legitimate for a serious full-time worker. As the NSW Minister for Women, perhaps she is a bit too pessimistic about the likelihood of changing the structures of workplaces. However, she has produced an excellent set of figures for us to use in our lobbying!

I think we should restart asking questions on whether the favoured macho model of “presentism” and long hours actually works for the presumably desired ends of high productivity or responsible work practices. The initial debate was started by an article in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former policy director for US President Barack Obama, which raised issues about a workplace that demands 16-hour-a-day. Does this working pattern lead to good policy and political judgement? Rather than seeing this as feminism failing, we should question whether the workplace model is functional for any worker.

She left this job to return to her very senior academic position - not to no job. She pointed out that she could set her own hours in ways that allowed her, and her spouse, to manage both their parenting responsibilities and do a good job. She and Pru are correct when they write that women may one day have it all, but “not today because we have not been able to make the changes needed to civilise workplaces for all of us”.

There is data that show that shorter working hours produce higher levels of productivity. How we work and where, with some autonomy, trust and flexibility, can also add productivity. There is a mass of data on productivity and working hours – which can be downloaded from The Guardian’s data blog – that show that the countries with shorter average hours tend to have higher productivity. There are also numerous studies on the poor health of those with too-long work hours.

Sixteen-hour workdays does not produce a responsible way to make good decisions. We restrict pilot shifts, as too many hours flying a plane reduces their judgement, so why do those who run our most powerful institutions think they can perform under these stressors? Certainly, the recent record of many bad major policy decisions in politics and commerce prove their judgement isn’t good enough. However, as this is the way the powerful set the example, most employees in lower level jobs will follow their lead and surround themselves with others who also have too little time to be good people. Sharing the tasks of life outside the workplace is not possible, much less a priority.

Feminists need to point out that we want to take on our share of decisions and jobs, but not until the structures and cultures change in recognition that is not the good way to run the country or other organisations. The Atlantic article and its endorsement by the Minister should be a wake up call to re-examine questions of hours of work and how we take them on.

Further reading: Advice for balancing motherhood and a scientific career