One woman feels like she’s being punished for having children and doing volunteer work, while now trying to return to the paid workforce.
Another was back at work eight weeks after the birth of her first child, and four weeks after the birth of her second, and still treated like a “dead weight” in the office, only to be retrenched after baby number three.
Another is a sole parent to a three-year-old, and is pushing through a difficult work environment and expensive childcare system, determined to keep working and stay financially independent.
And another single mother has escaped domestic violence and is racing from work to daycare every night to get her two kids, knowing she’s being watched at work and has to put in the hours.
There are others who say they’re “lucky” or “fortunate” to work for an employer that offers some flexibility. Others again who are “lucky” or “fortunate” to have a supportive partner take on their equal load of the caring responsibilities at home.
These were some of the hundreds of mothers we heard from in response to Kate Ashmor’s recent piece urging the ‘Forgotten Women of Australia’ to rise up, and her call for a Productivity Commission into working women.
Less than two weeks after publishing the piece, Georgie Dent and I caught up with Kate for our regular Work It Out podcast, to get a more detailed understanding of the issue at hand.
Kate describes the ‘forgotten women’ as part of the great middle class of Australia. They are not poor, but not rich. Once told they could do anything with their careers, they have gotten themselves educated and started climbing the ladder in professional careers. If they go on to have children, however, they find the system is seriously rigged against them. From unaffordable childcare, to inflexible work practices, continued social norms regarding who does what at home, and school hours that simply don’t match an office career
Kate said the reaction to her piece has been “overwhelming” and may reflect the large number of women who’re experiencing what she describes, but haven’t yet articulated it.
“What they are finding is that they can get an education, get a profession, but still once they have children – and the second child seems to be the tipping factor – the way the childcare system is arranged can be a disincentive for me to keep working, particularly working full-time.”
She said it’s mainly Gen Y women who seem to be particularly feeling it at this point in time (although this issue is certainly not isolated to Gen Y women alone) – a cohort that also happens to be one of the largest and most influential voting blocks in the country.
While plenty of women can relate, and have already shared their own stories, Kate believes the problem is not being looked at from a productivity perspective. She adds that taking a look at how many university debts go unpaid due to systemic issues affecting women’s workforce participation, would be a start. ‘If you want to be looking at ways to raise more money without any industrial unrest, here is fertile territory where there are billions of dollars up for grabs. But it does require a change in the assumptions,” she said.
Kate adds that a Productivity Commission would be able to take a helicopter view by taking submissions across the board regarding what’s getting in the way of women’s workforce participation. “It would also look at women who are retiring into poverty because of the superannuation gap and also the gender pay gap.”
This conversation has moved well beyond the question of whether women “can have it all”. It’s a conversation that’s bigger than a woman’s level of ambition and her choice to be able to have a career and kids. It’s about how we can quit sabotaging the investments we’re making in women’s education to create more sustainable economic outcomes.
As Kate says, no one can “have it all” because you simply can’t be in two places at once.
But she hopes the conversation about the “Forgotten Women” that she’s started (and is continuing via this new Facebook group) is a launchpad for change, particularly in encouraging more women to use their voice. “In the two spare minutes that the forgotten women have every day they might want to send a Facebook message to their local MP. You can tweet them… Use the technology in the precious time that you have.”
There’s a critical mass that’s building, adds Kate, and something’s got to give. “These women are too smart to be sitting there doing nothing.”
Listen to our podcast with Kate below, from about 12 minutes on.