For some former corporate mums the supermarket checkouts are now looking good as a career option.
Photo: Rohan Thomson
At the heart of the conversation about the position of women in the workforce is the question of choice. Do women choose not to pursue promotion and leadership or are they prevented from doing so, either by overt or covert sexism or lack of flexibility and support from employees and partners?
(In many ways these discussion presume the women are also parents. My comments here relate to women who are also mothers.)
When I hear these issues discussed in the public arena, I am reminded of the countless groups I have conducted with women and what they reveal about their complex views on the role paid work plays in their lives.
These views belie the sometimes polarised debate structured around “choice” and “inequality”.
A few years ago I was sitting with a group of women in their late 30s. All of them were either on maternity leave or about to return to work. Some had gone to university. Some had worked in management in small companies or in the finance sector. While they all wanted and needed to return to paid work, the demands of their husbands’ jobs, including long commutes, meant they had “downgraded” their careers to just jobs. It was enough managing the responsibilities of the home; they wanted limited responsibility at work. “With work, I don’t want responsibility any more. I am sick of it. I want to go to work and the leave and say ‘hey, hey work, bye-bye’.”
“I’m over work. I am over the travel, the politics. I have been there 15 years in May. I wouldn’t go back into a branch because I don’t like the sales and the quotas.” These women had the added difficulty of parents who required caring and who couldn’t provide babysitting support for them.Their ideal job? Check-out chick. School-friendly hours, you could forget about it when you’re finished and get 5 per cent off groceries.
I hear a version of this conversation almost every time I listen to mothers talk about work. And yet while it sounds like they are content with the choice of a job rather than a career it’s clear they are also a little dissatisfied, a little bewildered and sometimes a little angry that there is a choice to be made. This was clear from a study we did last year on full-time working mothers. One of the big themes was resentment that greater opportunities for women meant we were now not just responsible for cooking the bacon we had to bring it home as well. “When did ‘having it all’ become ‘doing everything yourself?’ . . . You’re working, you’re entertaining, you’re doing it all. You’re everything. When did it become just our job?”
These women felt their careers after children had somehow become second-rate or less important than their partners’. “We went to hospital a couple of times with asthma, and [my husband] never took a day off, it was all me. Because he’s got the ‘real’ career.” “Woman 1: Like I find with Steve’s career, Steve’s always comes first. Woman 2: We slip in our ‘half-arsed’ bloody careers and still do all the paying the bills, shopping, running the kids around, mowing the lawn . . .” Having too much to do in the home and a lack of flexibility in the workplace were viewed as key obstacles to mothers maintaining fulfilling careers.“When you go back to work . . . I still have to do everything else. I’ve just got to fit in whatever shitty job I choose”. “The biggest problem I have in trying to get back into my chosen career is flexibility. My career is accounts admin and you have to be there 9 to 5 and I can’t do it with kids. What am I supposed to do? The kids have to come first … I don’t know if Australia is behind the rest of the world, but parts of Europe have 10 to 2 … Here there’s no flexibility.”
This is not to say that if things were different – with men taking more responsibility at home and having more flexible workplaces – that some women would not still opt for check-out chick over bank manager. But it’s also clear the choice of jobs over careers is often a reluctant one.
Mind & Mood Report director Rebecca Huntley is an author and social commentator.