Something quite extraordinary happened earlier this week. An own goal by the Daily Telegraph, in which the editors sought to suggest Labor leader Bill Shorten cynically omitted key elements of his mum’s story of dreams forgone, backfired, instead prompting a debate about how we’ve thwarted a generation of women’s ambitions and squandered their talent.
The viral #MyMum hashtag, still trending on Twitter as I sat down to write this, saw an emotional outpouring as many paid tribute to their mothers and the obstacles some overcame, but too many did not.
If this was evidence of “living the Australian dream”, as the Daily Telegraph suggested Ann Shorten’s story was a shining example of, many and their mums begged to differ.
As we approach Mother’s Day this weekend, the best gift many mothers are getting this year — instead of the standard issue corny mug and card with a saccharin sentiment — is the #MyMum hashtag and the recognition of their sacrifices and what might have been.
But I’d caution against the temptation to view this issue entirely through the rear-view mirror and be lulled into a false sense of progress. We are still squandering the talent of too many mothers in real time – the so-called “motherhood penalty” is alive and well in Australia.
We could easily swap #MyMum for #ThisMum and see an equally sizeable, equally moving, outpouring of stories from mothers with young children who are struggling to combine work with family.
These are not women making “choices” to stay home and raise their children, but women who find the “choice” to combine work with family has not been available to them due to equal measures of good old-fashioned discrimination and systemic inequalities.
The gates to higher education may have been thrown open to these women in large numbers as well as the doors to potentially promising and fulfilling careers (something many of their mothers, as evidenced by the many #MyMum tales, found firmly locked), but when they had children they fell off, and continue to fall off, a proverbial cliff edge.
It seems especially cruel to wave the brass ring, and then snatch it away – which, I believe, is feeding an undercurrent of women’s, and mother’s, anger that politicians of all stripes need to reckon with.
We are not shifting the motherhood penalty, and there is significant evidence that in Australia it is actually getting worse.
According to a KPMG Diversity Council report on the drivers of the gender pay gap, She’s Priceless, the influence of years not working (career interruptions usually related to the birth of children) has more than doubled since the Diversity Council first started researching the drivers of the gender pay gap ten years ago.
Why might that be? Australia has relatively low female workforce participation rates compared to other OECD countries and among the highest part-time work rates for women in the world, which, incidentally, were key reasons Australia fell from number 15 in 2006 to 46 in 2016 (a drop of more than 30 places in ten years) in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. Australia has since recovered somewhat and now sits at 39.
Lack of access to affordable childcare is a key barrier keeping Australian women who want to work or work more hours out of the workplace, according to an OECD report . Yet, moves to have a sensible debate about childcare policy and what might actually support women to work are met with cries of communism.
What’s more, 1 in 2 women report experiencing discrimination while pregnant, on maternity leave or when they return to work, and women spend up to twice as much time on unpaid domestic work as men. A generation of so called “woke” Dads, it seems, are talking the talk, but not yet walking the walk.
I, personally, could tell you about the new boss, who upon my return to work after the birth of my first child, said to me, “I assumed you wouldn’t want the same level of responsibility now that you have a child.”
Or I could tell you about the recruitment consultant I met shortly after I moved to Australia six year ago, who told me, “You have all the right skills and qualifications for the role, but I am not short-listing you because you have a young family and your heart won’t be in it.”
Or I could tell you about the CEO who wanted to move me to a series of short term month-to-month contracts, and when presented with the argument that insecure employment in-directly discriminates against those with caring responsibilities (particularly mothers, who need to commit to and factor in the costs of childcare in order to work) said to me, “That’s just the way things work.”
The power of the #MyMum hashtag and Bill Shorten’s emotional tribute to his own mum was not only due to its long overdue recognition of the squandered talent of those who came before us, but due to its promise to do better for #ThisMum.
Many of the Mums of Australia, #ThisMum included, have that high on their wish list this Mother’s Day.
Kristine Ziwica is Melbourne based writer. She tweets @KZiwica