The best Mother’s Day gift? Flexible work for women and men

Ahead of Mother’s Day earlier this month, the Agency’s Director Libby Lyons wrote an OpEd for the Sydney Morning Herald. You can read the full piece below.  

American comedian Gilda Radner said motherhood is “an act of infinite optimism”. As our nation grapples with the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, I suspect many Australian mothers are finding it hard to be infinitely optimistic this Mother’s Day. 

Even before COVID-19 upended our lives, Australian mothers faced significant challenges. At work, they confront the motherhood penalty, suffering substantial wage penalties and trading away career progress. At home, they shoulder a double burden, picking up the bulk of the domestic work. 

Last year’s Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey showed that two-thirds of working-age couples are now dual earners. Yet women still do most of the unpaid domestic and care work at home. Women spend 64.4% of their average weekly working time on unpaid care work compared to 36.1% for men. For every hour of unpaid care work done by men, women do one hour and 46 minutes. 

The impact of COVID-19 has made women’s lives even tougher. With many schools closed due to lockdowns, Australian mothers are now carrying a “quadruple load”, adding home schooling and the mental labour of worrying to the daily juggle of paid work and unpaid care responsibilities. That is, if they still have a job. 

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics Weekly Payroll Jobs and Wages data released earlier this week showed that more women than men have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Women are facing even greater job uncertainty and economic insecurity than before. 

In such an environment, one would forgive many mothers for feeling stretched to breaking point. 

Australian employers must play an important role to ease these burdens. One of the few positive developments from the COVID-19 crisis is the necessity for many people to work from home – a form of flexible work. 

As a result, many employers now have a better understanding of flexible work. Those who were sceptical of people working elsewhere to the office can now see flexible work in practice. Many are pleasantly surprised. Their employees are working from home and still being productive. They can be trusted to get the job done. 

As we move into a post-COVID-19 recovery phase, employers must now make flexible work arrangements available across every level of their organisation. They have to foster and encourage workplaces that support flexible work for everyone. 

Before COVID-19, smart employers had already normalised flexibility in their workplaces. Numerous studies have linked flexible working to many business benefits including lower staff turnover, reduced absenteeism, increased productivity, improved employee morale and better organisational performance. 

It is also a crucial ingredient in increasing women’s workforce participation. Our Women in Leadership Report and the 2019 Gender Equity Insights Report both revealed that normalising flexible work was a key factor in improving women’s career progression and increasing the representation of women in leadership. 

However, if Australian women are to reap the full benefits of working flexibly, then men must have equal access to it. Unfortunately, many men have encountered barriers from employers when they request flexible working arrangements. 

Research from Bain & Co and Chief Executive Women shows that men are twice as likely as women to have their requests to work flexibly denied. Many of these men were also worried that they were considered less committed to their job if they worked flexibly. An Australian Human Rights Commission report found that 27% of fathers and male partners reported experiencing discrimination related to parental leave and flexible working arrangements upon returning to work. 

Men’s working conditions matter for women. If men cannot work flexibly, it leaves their female partners with few choices. 

Supporting men to work flexibly has the potential to reduce the caring burden shouldered by women, thereby allowing them to participate more fully in the workforce. The COVID-19 experience shows it has also enabled men to become more involved in family and domestic life.  

With dual-income couples now the norm rather than the exception, it is incumbent on Australian employers to support our working families. The COVID-19 crisis has proved beyond doubt that flexible work is an idea whose time has come. Making it an essential, mainstream working practice in our workplaces would be one of the best Mother’s Day gifts that employers could offer to Australian women and men – and their children.