The four pillars critical to supporting working women in Australia

The AFL Women’s Exhibition Match between the Western Bulldogs and the Melbourne Demons in Melbourne. Michael Dodge/Getty Images

A highlight of my career to date has been initiating and managing one of the most significant projects on gender equality ever undertaken in Australia.

The two-year research effort began in 2013 and resulted in a comprehensive report, Filling the Pool.

Arising from interviews and research conducted by Dr Terry Fitzsimmons and his colleague Professor Victor Callan at the Business School at the University of Queensland, with 23 leading men and 150 women from graduates to chairs of boards and those who had opted out, Filling the Pool is a data driven report.

Every anecdote and personal war story was checked against the facts and, disappointingly, the evidence supported what they were told — women face many barriers to participating and progressing in the work force.

Filling the Pool, with its roadmap of 31 interlocking recommendations, was undertaken in a Perth context but has found relevance and resonance across the country. It has been described by business leaders as being insightful, pragmatic, unique and actionable.

It remains a fact that Australian women are disproportionately the primary care givers, whether in paid work or not. Therefore, regardless of whether a woman with caring responsibilities is working in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane or Perth, the findings of Filling the Pool are that there are four pillars that need to work in concert for a woman to be supported to succeed in corporate Australia.

In short, women need:

  • a supportive partner;
  • family support;
  • access to child care; and
  • flexible work conditions.

For those of us with a life partner that is our supporter, we know just how important it is to have someone to share the load with, while for those who are single parenting, juggling everything is a daily challenge in which many say they feel like they do nothing well and are constantly exhausted.

Working mothers and parents who have siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents that are an active part of your children’s lives are a blessing you no doubt give daily thanks for.

However the reality is that we can’t co-opt many of those people because they are still in the workforce themselves, suffer from ill-health or mobility issues or live some distance away.

A network of friends can help to fill the void and, in my case, adopting grandparents was a godsend because my children’s biological ones lived on the other side of the country and the other side of the world.

Access to quality, reliable, affordable child care in Australia is patchy at best. Many child care centres have long wait times and are rigid rather than flexible.

Working mothers often report that having their first child and returning to work is relatively straightforward; it is when a family has more children with one in day care and one or more at kindy or school that the complexity becomes a maze of navigating various drop off and pick-up times and managing pupil free days.

Add to that school holidays, which cannot be covered throughout the year even if both parents take 4 weeks leave separate to each other, along with the unplanned days such as a child being ill.

When juggling working and caring becomes too difficult, some women opt out of the workforce and others whose economic circumstances can’t accommodate the drop in wages find themselves trying to manage both.

Nannies are used by some professional women because the child care is in home, flexible and can accommodate the family’s needs and schedules.

It is expensive and therefore an option open to only a few. With two children in full time care it becomes a zero sum game for the average wage earner in that their wage covers the cost of child care but leaves little left over.

In some households, women have taken on the role of breadwinner, and their partners the primary care giver. Because this arrangement is not within the norm, men report discrimination from mothers and their wives are accused of putting career before family.

Companies are increasingly offering flexible work arrangements that include working from home, reduced hours or flexible start and finish times.

In the past, flexible work policies were more often than not negotiated between the employee and their manager with little take up. For those that did, both men and women reported that their careers had “gone on hold”.

Their request to work flexibly was seen as a lack of commitment to the company and their role which resulted in being overlooked for promotion and often reassigned to “special projects”.

More recently, companies such as Telstra, the ANZ Bank, professional service firms PwC and KPMG, and law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth, have adopted a policy of “all roles flex”, in which rather than having to prove that a job can be done flexibly, the onus has reverted to the line manager to mount a case for why it cannot.

Although Filling the Pool started life as a research project to find solutions to achieve gender equality in the workplace, it became so much more than that. It detailed not only the structural barriers impeding women’s success so eloquently described by the 4 pillars above, it brought to light the cultural barriers too.

In the interviews, 1 in 3 women working in Western Australia said that it was the prevailing view of their parents, sisters, brothers and friends that if their husband earned a good wage they should stay at home to raise the children and not return to work.

Women who were working reported time and time again that they knew they were paid less than their male counterparts. This rings true, with the Workplace for Gender Equality Agency reporting earlier this year that the current national gender pay gap for full time workers is 17.9%.

With Australian women now making up more than 50% or more of university graduates in most disciplines, these structural and cultural barriers need to be broken down so that women can fairly and equitably participate and progress in the workplace and get a return on investment from their tertiary education.

Filling the Pool provides the way forward in which government and organisations have a critical role to play and, importantly, its recommendations are actionable by both men and women.

Marion Fulker

Marion Fulker is the CEO of the Committee for Perth, a private sector funded think tank and Project Manager of its gender equity project Filling the Pool. She has an MBA from Curtin University Graduate School of Business and is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at The University of Western Australia. In 2015, Marion was named as one of Australia’s 100 Women of Influence.

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