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Work and family: the challenge for modern Australia

By Pru Goward - posted Sunday, 15 September 2002

The challenge - achieving a work/family balance. How we respond to this challenge will affect the lives of women, families, and next generations.

The need to address it is recognised across society. When Valuing Parenthood: Options for paid maternity leave was launched, for example, it was intended to begin an informed and fair-minded public debate about the need or otherwise for a national paid maternity leave scheme for Australia.

The most we hoped for was that the Government might agree to pay for some economic modelling on a couple of options.


None of us anticipated the strength and depth of the public support for the issue. But perhaps we should have. Perhaps we should have known that if work wasn't working for women, then it wouldn't be working for anyone else much either- their parents, partners, their children and babies. Perhaps we should have believed that the anxieties we hold for the struggle women still face in Australia were anxieties shared by others, a lot of others.

Perhaps we should have realised, if we think we can no longer put off facing up to some of the profound social challenges emerging in Australia, then the rest of the country might be thinking the same way.

And they are - because they have to. Every year our fertility rate declines. It currently sits at 1.70. In 2000 it was 1.75. In 1990 it was 1.9. A fertility rate falling below the necessary replacement rate of 2.1 is the symptom of something going wrong.

But it is only a symptom. It is not the disease itself. Work and family is not a 'womb gazing' debate. It is a debate about women's working lives. It is about women making life choices around the fact that they continue to receive less pay, less opportunity, and less financial support in the workplace because they bear children.

Women still earn only 84 cents in the male dollar, when comparing average weekly ordinary full time earnings. This gap occurs for a number of reasons as we know - basic workplace discrimination; perhaps, women's career expectations; workforce gender segregation which is ongoing and high; and, of course, family responsibilities.

It is the gendered nature of family responsibilities that now form the greatest barrier to equal pay. Pay inequity is intertwined with work and family issues.


First, women who negotiate with bosses for salaries quite often end up with less then their male counterparts doing the same job. They arrive at the bargaining table feeling that they will have to forfeit a higher salary because they know one day they may need greater workplace flexibility or they may have to take days off due to commitments to their children.

Men - many of whom will become or are fathers don't even consider factoring these things when they sit down to 'talk figures'.

Second, promotion often isn't available to women, nor are the extra hours, nor is the senior positions available in the interstate office for three months - because they need to get home to their kids.

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This is an edited version of a speech given to Melbourne’s Royal Women's Hospital on 27 August 2002.

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About the Author

Pru Goward is Australia’s Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

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