Paid maternity leave is only one measure Australia may need to take if it is ever to resolve the problem that the work v. family conflict poses to business and the nation itself. By Mark James
What is the correct balance between family life and work life? This has been the subject of much political debate, the latest round involving the merits of paid maternity leave. However, no viable management model has emerged to balance the rival demands of productivity, employee fulfilment and stakeholder responsibility, partly because work and family require a trade-off. Understanding that trade off – knowing how to negotiate over the scarcity of time – will be the key to dealing with what is a vexed problem.
Although Australian organisations are investing heavily in their employees, they are losing some of their best and brightest female talent. Women in the prime of their working lives are withdrawing their skills and knowledge and leaving to have children. It is a phenomenon attributed to many factors: better education, workplace culture, long working hours, child care, equal opportunity, feminism, contraception, extended adolescence, men who won’t commit, no-fault divorce, rising property values, even what our mothers and fathers told us. The list seems endless.
The family cram
In her speech launching the interim options paper Valuing Parenthood: Paid Maternity Leave, federal sex discrimination commissioner Pru Goward pinpointed the problem: “… it is when women have committed at least 10 years to their field, in study and/or experience, and are often on their way to becoming leaders in their fields, that they leave the workforce.”
With Australian women now most likely to have children between the ages of 30 and 34, Goward said, “they are finding themselves attempting to start families at the very time when they have gained sufficient experience to take on more challenging roles in the workforce. People wishing to have children today are forced to ‘family cram’ … women who haven’t borne a child by the age of 35 are most unlikely to do so after that age. At the same time there is still a mortgage to be paid, a cost of living to be met and a career to be established. Women have to keep working.”
Children require a safe, supervised environment while they develop and, try as they might, men can’t have babies. Can the pressures of global competition be reconciled with the natural division of labor in which females make a nest to raise the young while males go out in search of food?
In hunter-gatherer and subsistence societies, women have always worked; collecting and growing food, fibre, fuel and other necessities. However, it can be argued that for women to advance in developed societies, they must outsource their biological role. For centuries, whenever it has been socially accept-able, privileged women have passed on the responsibility of child care to wet nurses, nannies and boarding schools. In contemporary society, many of the impediments to women taking their full part in the workforce are not biological but a function of institutional structures, social policies, and individual bias.
In 1990, Australia ratified the International Labour Organisation Convention No 156, Workers with Family Responsibilities, which aims to “enable persons with family responsibilities who are engaged or wish to engage in employment to exercise their right to do so without being subject to discrimination and, to the extent possible, without conflict between their employment and family responsibilities”. Nevertheless, Australia and the United States are the only OECD countries without a national scheme of paid maternity leave. In contrast, French workers receive 26 weeks and Swedish workers 52 weeks of paid maternity leave. Singapore offers paid maternity leave in relation to a third child.
Women who take unpaid leave or drop out of the workforce to raise children lose financial benefits such as superannuation and the advantages of an uninterrupted work history. When they return to work, many find themselves working in roles at a lower level than when they left, often part time.
The Federal Government provides a range of family income assistance packages, including a maternity allowance and family tax benefits. But according to Goward, the government-funded maternity benefits available to women are primarily aimed at women not in paid work. “The Government’s First Child Tax Rebate will not assist that rising number of women who need to go back to work in the first year.”
Women are more likely than men to hold a bachelor degree or a post-graduate diploma (men are more likely to hold higher degrees), and are more likely than men to hold administrative or managerial roles when they first enter the workforce.
Fiona Krautil, director of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, says that there is a big decline in the numbers of women managers in the 25-34 and 35-44 age groups: “Women may have gained virtual equality with men when it comes to entering the workforce but, within five or six years, they begin to drop off the fast track and either stagnate on the sideline or opt out altogether. The majority of Australian employers still do not effectively tap 100% of the talent pool to create sustainable organisations. At the current pace of change, it will take 177 years to achieve a 50% representation of women in management.”
Catalyst, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the advancement of women in “Fortune 500” companies in the US, conducted a survey of 325 chief executives and more than 10,000 female executives, asking the question: “What holds women back from advancement?” The responses revealed startling differences in views. Fifty-two per cent of the female respondents nominated stereotyping and preconceptions as the chief impediment to women’s advancement, and only 25% of CEOs even indicated this as a problem. An overwhelming 82% of CEO respondents said the chief impediment to women’s advancement was a lack of managerial experience.
The truth of the matter probably lies somewhere between these contrasting perceptions but, with 49% of the surveyed executives stating that exclusion from informal networks was impeding the advancement of women in the workforce, could it be that women have a collective chip on their shoulders about this issue?
Less than one in five of the 1200 female respondents to a survey conducted by the Australian Businesswomen’s Network nominated children or gender discrimination as a barrier to advancement. Almost half cited “lack of self-promotion” as the chief impediment to women’s advancement in business organisations.
Krautil says: “Many women under-value themselves. This makes them less likely to apply for promotions and more senior positions. In the private sector, women are advancing into senior roles in staff areas such as human resources, legal and government, and public affairs.
Typically, these departments support the main business but are not part of the operational focus. These roles, therefore, tend not to lead to key decision-making roles or organisational leadership positions.”
Statistics aren’t people
Statistics and research do not convey the whole story. They merely represent human beings with individual qualities, idiosyncrasies and circumstances, trying to balance the daily conflict between work and family life. The introduction of a single policy such as paid maternity leave will not be a magical solution to the “family cram”.
According to Goward, the discrimination experienced by pregnant women is a precursor to further discrimination after the baby is born: “While the birth of a child is a special time for families, for women it is also a time characterised by colic, croup, cracked nipples, six feeds a day and sheer physical exhaustion. Post-natal depression is common, as is the need for a physical recovery from caesarean section births.” Employers need to make allowances for these biological realities.
Nevertheless, education and life skills are not necessarily lost when women leave work to raise a family. Iona McNab studied and practised law in Australia, but a sabbatical in Japan led to a dramatic change in her life course: marriage to a local man and the raising of three children. “The experience of birth and breastfeeding, personally speaking, was more enriching than all the years of study and work,” MacNab said. She has now managed to combine her life experiences into a new career, retraining as a lactation consultant, only the second in Japan to come from outside the medical profession. “It is a new and exciting profession and at the same time a career that draws on my previous education and experience.
Efforts to have the Japanese Government draw up provisions to promote and protect breastfeeding, to legislate to ensure compliance with WHO guidelines; these are the challenges of my new career, which can draw on my legal training.”
Striking a balance
The human resources department at the University of Melbourne has a guide to best practice entitled Work and Family: The Links and the Balance. It states that “developments in technology, a general reduction in the level of supervision required by all staff, and management practices which are outcomes focused, provide staff with the opportunity to take control of their time, and to take responsibility for achieving work goals.
In some situations, it may be possible to arrange flexibility around working days or hours. It may also be possible to work for some of the time at home. Accommodating the needs of staff will ensure that staff feel valued and will contribute to morale and retention rates.”
These solutions are becoming self-apparent, and progressive workplaces are making the changes. For example, after introducing part-time work, CSIRO increased its number of female scientists by two-thirds, and its proportion of female senior executives has gone from zero to 12%. Institutional structures and procedures have to support initiatives that are conducive to women’s advancement if mothers are to take their full role in the workforce. Flexible working arrangements require productivity measurements and benefit systems that assess actual performance rather than hours worked.
Rachel Smith is an American who spent a year in Australia for post-graduate study and now works as an associate director with the California Medical Association. Smith was promoted two months before her child was born. She calls herself fortunate in that her employer paid for 3.5 months maternity leave.
Again full time, she works two days a week from home. Smith and her Australian-born husband (who had no parental leave) are preparing for a big change. “While we are doing well financially, the price we have paid is truly not worth it, and we plan to return to Australia within the next five years,” she says.
“Australians tend to work to live, not live to work, and in the US we have had a difficult time keeping that core belief.”
Child-rearing issues occur in broader social and political contexts. Striking a balance between work and family is not just about maternity leave or parenting young children. Family responsibilities continue throughout life. To retain the skills of all employees, organisations must revise their management procedures to reflect the realities of work and home life.
- 57% of two-parent families with dependent children have both parents in the workforce.
- 55% of women with children under five years are in the workforce.
- Women graduates’ starting salaries are 94% of the rate for male graduates.
- 13% of generalist managers are women.
- 27% of specialist managers are women.
- One in 10 private-sector board members is a woman.
- Almost one in three Commonwealth board members is a woman.
- Of the top 100 Australian companies, only one CEO is a woman
- In 1961, the fertility rate in Australia hit a high of 3.6 children per woman.
- By 1991, the fertility rate had dropped below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.
- The current fertility rate is 1.7 children per woman.
- On average, Australian women now have their first child at 29.8 years.
Women in the workforce
- Women make up 44% of Australians in paid work.
- Women make up 73% of part-time employees.
When divorce doth us part
When employees split with their partners it can affect performance, and sensitive company information may be at risk.
By Emily Ross
Divorce can affect executives in ways other than altering behavior patterns – some throw themselves into work, others get distracted and performance suffers.
The chief executive of Relationships Australia, Anne Hollonds, likens the experience to the death of a close friend: “The grief process is not dissimilar, and often executives can’t perform to their usual standards. Often executives don’t tolerate weakness in themselves. They want a quick fix.” That is why some self-destruct, says Hollonds, who sees many cases of substance abuse as a way of coping.
Hollonds says executives have a “professional veneer” that can crack under the pressure of such a crisis. After more than 20 years of experience with people going through divorce, she is convinced that professional counselling can speed up the healing process. People who don’t seek help get stuck.
High-level executives also have to deal with guilt associated with lower performance. It is in a company’s interests to support staff through a divorce. In extreme cases, it can help to protect companies, as divorce can have ramifications in the workplace, particularly at executive levels. This is not just because the performance of executives can deteriorate as they go through the stages of separation, but also because confidential business information can be aired.
In the United States, company secrets of Ernst & Young and General Electric have been revealed in highly publicised cases as spouses fought for higher settlements. Because he owns 0.22% of the company, the current chief executive of the privately owned Ernst & Young, Richard Bobrow, had to reveal the company’s value as part of calculating his wife Jan Bobrow’s settlement. A court valued it at $US5.53 billion, giving competitors information that had been impossible to source. The court ruling included the value of an Ernst & Young consulting business that was sold to the French firm Cap Gemini. Competitors also became privy to client relationship details. Added to this embarrassment is the potential for Ernst & Young staff to demand higher salaries, knowing that the boss earned $US3.125 million in 2001.
In the General Electric case, it was revealed that former chairman Jack Welch enjoyed lifetime perks from his former employer, including a chef, use of a company jet, a car and chauffeur, and even having his dry cleaning bills paid. Welch has decided to reimburse the company, but his problems are not over. His wife is contesting maintenance of $US35,000 a month, claiming it is not enough to support her lifestyle.
In Australia, stock analysts and investors have not been too concerned about the split of James and Jodhi Packer, announced in June this year. Prenuptial agreements are expected to protect the Packer empire.
Human resources departments usually handle workplace performance issues stemming from divorce, or staff may be encouraged to attend an employee assistance program. Hollonds believes that three sessions in such a program, the average paid for by Australian companies, is not enough.
The not-for-profit Relationships Australia has 80 centres. As well as one-on-one counselling, it conducts training for managers to deal with the workplace effects of divorce.
Little fact box
In Australia, 45% of marriages end in divorce. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that more Australians than ever are getting divorced: 55,300 in 2001, which is up 30% over the past two decades.
The median age for divorce for men is 42, up from 36 in 1981, and for women it is 39, up from 33 in 1981.