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If Men are Not Slackers, Why Are Women Still Holding the Baby? Published : September 13, 2011 in Knowledge@Australian School of Business

If Men are Not Slackers, Why Are Women Still Holding the Baby? Expectations on parents in Australia today are high. There's widespread acceptance that both mothers and fathers should be fully engaged in raising their children. But when the data is analysed, glaring questions emerge: Just how far have we come from the 1950s "ideal" of father as breadwinner and mother as homemaker? Have both parents achieved a degree of equality in their work-family arrangements? Are women still holding the baby?

The popular belief that child-rearing duties are becoming more equally shared is not matched by the reality, according to new research by Lyn Craig, an associate professor from the University of New South Wales' Social Policy Research Centre. She set out to uncover how parents are dividing their time between paid work, childcare and housework, and analysed data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics' time-use survey of 2006. Craig found that in 62% of households with children under 11, both parents were in paid work. However, in almost 70% of those households, the father worked full-time and the mother worked part-time, retaining the major responsibilities for child rearing and domestic chores.

Moreover, Craig found that strategies such as women working from home or becoming self-employed did little to alter this state of affairs. Although in some situations, fathers are taking a more hands-on approach to parenting in what Craig refers to as "tag-teaming" – where fathers work conventional hours while mothers work evenings and weekends. Where these arrangements are in place, she detects more of a gender balance. But as Craig points out, this is very much at the expense of the time that a couple can spend together.

Beyond Stereotypes

The stereotype of "husband as breadwinner, wife as homemaker" was only realised in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. "Prior to that, during World War Two, many women were drawn into the workforce, as they were in Europe." However, factors such as limited maternity leave provisions, the high cost of childcare, and the fact that women in Australia on average earn less than men, might give credence to the argument that it makes economic sense to divide up the "breadwinning" and the "child rearing" in this way.

There's a need to distinguish between the short-term economic benefits of such arrangements, and the long-term costs, Craig emphasises. "Women returning to part-time work after maternity leave discover it frequently involves occupational downgrading – and casual work offers less career opportunities. In some other countries, notably in Europe, women have the right to return part-time to the same job they held before having children." Craig also points out that this process of women leaving and re-entering the workforce has a negative impact on superannuation, and the prospects of a well-funded retirement.

"The education of women in Australia is very high – more Australian women are now getting degrees than men. But compared with other countries, we have low participation of women in the workforce," Craig points out.

Some of the barriers to women's full participation in the workforce, outlined by Craig, include limited availability of childcare, limited parental leave, and lack of rights to part-time working. Overcoming these might form the basis of a more equitable division of labour between mothers and fathers, she says. More affordable childcare also would allow couples to reliably plan for their childcare, notes Craig.

In Australia, child-care for many families has just become more expensive after the federal government won support in August from minority party the Greens to reduce the non-means tested 50 per cent childcare rebate from $8179 a year to $7500 per child per year from July 2011 and freeze at it that rate for three years. The government had been trying for 16 months to get the cost-saving measure through.

While Craig welcomes the introduction of 18 weeks' paid parental leave in 2011, she says this provision still lags behind what is available in many other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

Making the right to request part-time work in the same job a condition of employment would allow women to move in and out of part-time work, without having to relinquish a particular position. Craig would also like to see the removal of tax disincentives to having a secondary earner in the household, which results in some families being better off if a mother decides not to work.

Australia has no equivalent of the European Union Working Time Directive (which established a default right to work no more than 48 hours per week within the EU), Craig points out. Some two million Australians work in excess of 50 hours per week – and since those hard workers are predominantly men, Craig suggests this serves only to intensify the gender divide. But as she highlights in her research, "the real barriers to change are workplace practices that offer little genuine flexibility in work hours".

All-round Changes

Enlightened employers are already moving towards making changes to workplace flexibility, insists Juliet Bourke, a partner in human capital, specialising in diversity and inclusion at consultancy Deloitte. What's required is a shift in employers' mindsets, from one in which work is the dominant focus to one where people have multiple interests, Bourke says. "Organisations are not just responding to external pressure points, but also want to shape Australian society," she claims.

Bourke sees a parallel with the increasing involvement of corporations in the world of volunteering, where there is similar recognition that work is just one element in people's sense of identity. "Executives want to make a difference to their communities." And, in some cases, workers as well as bosses have some changes to make, she argues. "It's not just employers who want people to work longer and harder – employees like to step into that space too." Many workers find the world of work extremely fulfilling, and sometimes neglecting other areas of their lives is something they are happy to do.

So what could businesses be doing to help employees attain more balance between their work and family lives? For Bourke, it's a matter of "businesses setting boundaries". This could be as simple as establishing policies such as work meetings only taking place between 9am and 5pm, or insisting that weekend working is never considered compulsory. "There are extremes, of course – even when we were students we stayed up late to finish essays sometimes. But things become problematic when the exception becomes 'business as usual'. Plus, I have to add – how efficient are you really at two in the morning?

"We need to see both men and women as having work and family lives – and while this has happened with women, it hasn't yet happened with men," Bourke emphasises. "Business is in a relationship with communities and its employees, and that relationship means that business needs to make 'work' work."

Visible Flexibility

Over time, working arrangements in Australia are becoming more flexible, says Heather Gordon, leading programs and workshops manager at Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA). "Ten years ago, work was essentially full-time, part-time, or casual. Today, job sharing has become much more common, and although full 'telecommuting' is unusual, there are some staff who are doing it 100% of the time."

In some occupations, particularly those involving shift work, these kinds of flexibilities are not appropriate, Gordon concedes. However, in these areas, she observes a rise in shift-swapping and "self-rostering". "The right to put forward proposals for flexible working, and to have them seriously considered, is now seen as best practice by many companies," she says.

But the right to put forward suggestions for flexible working amounts to very little, if an organisation fails to facilitate that request. Gordon points out that organisations are often constrained by their own structures and systems, and that human resources departments are beginning to understand they need to provide training for managers in how to deal with flexible working. She cites an example of a company that had to change its system of accounting for annual leave, in order to allow staff to take leave in hourly rather than daily amounts. "What underlines all of this is trust that all the parties involved will do the right thing."

Gordon points to an interesting development in the take up of part-time and ad-hoc working arrangements at all levels of organisations, up to and including the CEO. The EOWA Employer of Choice for Women program asks organisations: "Is your CEO visible in his/her use of flexible working?" From the feedback on this question, Gordon cites examples of one CEO who works from home one day per fortnight, and another who does yoga before work on a Friday morning.

Visibility at senior levels is important because, "it puts the stamp of approval on flexible working for others in the organisation, and sends out the right message". Staff may believe there could be a negative impact on their career if they take up the flexible working provisions on offer. It's only if those in leading positions in organisations are seen to be taking up these provisions that any stigma associated with them will be dispersed. As Gordon puts it: "CEOs have families too!"

Gordon sees these changes as part of a larger cultural shift, whereby companies are beginning to recognise their staff as having a whole life. "All of this sends out a message that the organisation isn't interested in you just as an employee, but as a whole person. This has implications for the bottom line, as people feel more appreciative of what their employer offers. In times of skill shortages, this becomes an important retention tool.

"In particular, organisations are reporting a strong parallel between [workplace] flexibility, and the numbers of women returning to work after parental leave," says Gordon.

It's not that men are slackers, insists Craig. "Both mothers and fathers of young children are working hard, when you take into account both paid and unpaid employment." On Craig's findings, if the time spent on paid work and unpaid work of childcare and domestic labour is added up, both mothers and fathers are almost equally busy, with 69.3 hours per week for fathers and 70 hours per week for mothers. "We need to recognise that well-raised children are a benefit to the whole of society", says Craig, "not just to the parents who reared them."

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