International Women's Day 2013
With the ‘extra’ support of our workplaces in the form of flexible work practices and ‘family friendly’ policies women are increasingly empowered to feel like we can have it all. But is the balancing act of work, family and play something women should be expected to do alone? Perhaps women would not need this ‘extra’ support if workplaces were more flexible in general for everyone.
What do you think of when you hear about ‘International Women’s Day’? A lot of focus tends to be on how far women still have to go to reach true equality. Others only think of morning teas with pink cupcakes. As a young woman who has spent most IWD’s applauding the achievements of women in the community, my thoughts focus on celebrating how far women have come
If you read up on the day in question, the concept of IWD is dedicating one day for women to come together as one and ‘push for our demands’. What is interesting about this is the flexibility it provides. Yes, the day is ultimately grounded in the fight for equality, but what this purpose allows is the woman’s cause to grow and change as society changes.
The topics generated today by IWD in Australian society are perfect examples of this. In a society where education levels of women continue to rise and with it so is our economic autonomy, what is it that Australian women demand?
With the participation rate of women in the Australian workforce now at 65%, the face of the Australian labour force is near unrecognisable compared to 50 years ago. While organisations have the potential to prosper from the benefits of a gender diverse workforce, to achieve this, the social implication of this shift cannot be ignored: there is no longer a distinct separation between the breadwinner and the parent.
More and more employees are demanding the flexibility required to wear both hats. This creates a challenge for organisations. Organisations need to consider how they can attract and retain talented staff whose needs have shifted and with them what they value in an employer. But my question to you is, should this be a women’s issue? Because, apparently it is.
Don’t get me wrong. Addressing the needs of working mothers is critical to the success of women in the workforce - particularly those women in non-traditional industries such as professional services. My concern is that in highlighting this one initiative in isolation, we are shooting ourselves in the foot by perpetuating the gender stereotype that women are the homemakers, regardless of whatever else is going on in our lives.
This week Grant Thornton has profiled two impressive, ambitious women who are climbing the corporate ladder and tackling exciting challenges in their personal lives. Oh, and they are also mothers. They spoke about their experience balancing work and family and what challenged them most about returning to work after having children. The answers of both women identified concerns about preparing the household and coordinating the care of their children. Neither women spoke of coordinating with their partners about how both of their work routines will change to accommodate the change in family circumstance.
Could it be that these discussions don’t take place? And if so, why not? A study by the Diversity Council of Australia found that flexibility in the workplace is one of the top five valued job characteristics for men (in the top three for young dads!). Yet while flexible work options are available for both genders in most organisations, men rarely take advantage of them. I would suggest that the reason for such inaction is because of the very challenges women face when returning to work – they don’t want to appear unreliable, they want to remain relevant – ultimately, they don’t want to miss out on that promotion.
It makes me happy to think that women in the organisation I work for have had such smooth transitions back into the workforce, greatly aided by the understanding and support of their colleagues. This is a big step but it is only the first step. I will be even more proud when men are empowered to take up flexible work practices and play a more active role in their family life knowing that they too will return to work with understanding and supportive colleagues. It is only when this change in attitudes occurs that parenting duties can be more easily shared and we can start to put a stop to the gender bias of women as the homemakers. Hopefully then the term ‘working mothers’ will become obsolete in the same fashion that you never hear a male employee being referred to as a ‘working father’.
Society needs to re-evaluate what is a ‘women’s issue’. I am in awe of the women who are juggling it all, but this should not become the new normal. Gender roles as we know them are facing near extinction. It is time that the attitudes of society catch up to the realities of today. If we stop approaching ‘women’s issues’ in a vacuum we will realise that society is changing and what once may have been considered an issue for women only is no longer the case. Instead we should be approaching these issues from the light of a ‘social challenge’ so that we can tackle them from every angle and develop holistic solutions that do not result in a see-saw of oppression for men and women.
So when you are next asked what it is you think about when you hear ‘International Women’s Day’ don’t let your mind fade to pink cupcakes.
Instead consider this – what is it that women want? If you dig a little deeper than the ‘buzz words’ in the media, you may find that we are pushing for more demands than just our own.
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