Nareen Young, CEO of the Diversity Council Australia, argues that employers need to give mothers the flexibility and support they really want – not just this Mother’s Day – but every day.
On Mother’s Day, we take the time to acknowledge all the things our mums do for us and the important role mothers play in our society. When we think about Mother’s Day we often think just about soft focus images of mums with snuggly little babies and kids making breakfast in bed. And indeed, without them, our families couldn’t function.
But statistics show that the demands on 21st Century mothers are ever increasing as more and more mothers are struggling to combine paid work, parenting, caring for older family members and being active members of their communities. And workplaces need to change dramatically to accommodate this fundamental shift.
More mothers are working than ever before with figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics this week showing that among families where there was a mum, dad and at least one dependent child, more than two thirds (67%) of mothers were employed. Some 90% of the fathers were also employed – 92% in full-time jobs.
Single mothers are doing it even tougher. There are more than half a million (641,000) one parent families with dependent children in Australia and 84% of these are headed by single mothers.
Only 55% of single mothers are employed, reflecting the difficulty of finding work that is flexible enough to manage sick children, school hours and no vacation care. All mothers understand these difficulties but being a sole parent makes such problems even harder. Given these circumstances, while I support the principle of helping women remain attached to paid work, it is impossible to understand why current Government policy further penalises single parents by decreasing their financial support when their youngest child turns eight.
To make matters worse, mothers are increasingly not only just caring for children but often have the added responsibility of caring for older family members or family members with a disability or illness. At last count, 12% of Australians (that is, 2.6 million people) were carers, and women carers outnumber men in all age groups between 18 and 74. Some 17% of women aged 35-44, 23% of women aged 45-54 and one quarter of women aged 55–64 are carers.
As our population rapidly ages, the need for mothers (and fathers) to support older family members while maintaining paid work is only going to increase. For many mothers, the years of intensive caring are being squashed together, increasing the pressure even further. ABS statistics show increasing numbers of older women are having children. Between 2001 and 2011, the fertility rate for mothers in the 40–44 year old age group rose from 9.2 to 15.1 babies per 1,000 women. Moreover, the median age of mothers has been steadily increasing from a low of 25.4 years in 1971 to 30.6 years in 2011.
And to add to all the things mums do, there is the need for us to be active in our communities – in the P&C, the footy club and the kids canteen. Mothers are the backbone of community organisations across the country, with women aged between 45 and 54 having the highest volunteering rate of all age groups of people.
Part time work is one important way that mums balance paid employment and their other roles and responsibilities, and is a very common path for mothers. Part-time employment for mothers decreases as the age of their youngest child increases – but 81% of mums with 0-4 year olds work part-time, compared to 59% with 15-24 year old students and nearly a half (49%) of women employed part time are volunteers. And part time work has some important disadvantages.
Working part time has a real impact on women’s income – Australian women continue to earn less than men, with the current gender wage gap of 17.2%. The consequence is a significant lifetime earnings gap facing older Australian women – particularly those with children. In the 45-54 age bracket, women without children earned 72% of the wage of men with children and women with children earn only 57% of the wage of their male counterparts.
Part time work can frequently divert women onto the ‘mummy track’, in low quality, low status jobs with little prospect for career development or training. It’s no wonder that there are so few women in leadership positions in Australia.
And it’s no wonder women retire with half the superannuation balances and payouts of men, with future projections showing that the gap will remain a problem for coming generations, continuing to leave women vulnerable to poverty in their old age.
There is however a solution.
An employer’s positive and supportive attitude toward carers and workplace flexibility will make a huge difference to mothers, their families and their communities.
As DCA’s Get Flexible: Mainstreaming Flexible Work in Australian Business found, employers can start by adopting a ‘can do’ approach to flexible working and careers – they should ask how it can be done rather than just saying ‘No’ or ‘It’s too hard’.
Legal obligations under the Fair Work Act give certain employees the right to request flexible work but this is just the minimum. Smart employers understand that providing flexible work is crucial for retaining the talent they have already invested in.
There needs to be a change of culture to challenge the stigma of working flexibly. It has to be seen as a normal way of working. Employers need to offer quality flexible work at every level and at the point of recruitment – not just when people return from parental leave.
And they need to invest in manager’s skills and capabilities to manage the more flexible workforce of the future.
There are many tools and resources out there to help employers support parents and carers – including the Australian Government’s new Care Aware Workplace program.
Leading employers are already successfully mainstreaming flexible working and careers in workplaces.
It’s time for all employers to face up to the reality of working mothers’ lives and take action to support all mothers, and indeed all carers, in the workplace.
Nareen Young is CEO of Diversity Council Australia, the independent, not-for-profit workplace diversity advisor in Australia. In 2012, Nareen was named by prominent news and lifestyle website, Daily Life, as one of the 20 most influential female voices in Australia and by the Financial Review and Westpac Group as one of 100 Women of Influence, receiving the top honour in the diversity category.
For more information about DCA, visit www.dca.org.au.
ABS, 2013 (No. 6224.0.55.001), Labour Force, Australia: Labour Force Status and Other Characteristics of Families, Jun 2012, Canberra, ABS, 2013.
ABS, Births Australia, 2011 (No. 3301.0), Canberra, ABS, 2012.
ABS, Voluntary Work, Australia, 2010 (No. 4441.0), Canberra, ABS, 2011.
ABS, Caring in the Australian Community 2009 (No. 4436), Canberra, ABS, 2011.
Australian Government WGEA, ‘Gender Workplace Statistics at a Glance, February 2013’, http://www.wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/2013-02%20-%20Stats%20at%20a%20glance.pdf
Australian Human Rights Commission, Accumulating Poverty? Women’s Experiences of Inequality Over the Lifecycle. AHRC Sydney, 2009.
KELLY research, Household Savings and Retirement: Where Has All My Super Gone? Melbourne, CPA Australia, 2012.
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