Balancing act … we want to get ahead at work, but not at any cost.

Balancing act … we want to get ahead at work, but not at any cost. Photo: Chris Colls

It's the truth many working mothers feel guilty admitting – money isn't the biggest lure for returning to work. Half of those surveyed who work say the teamwork and camaraderie of colleagues is the most important part of their job, while 47 per cent cite intellectual stimulation. Salary comes in third, closely followed by "making a difference".

"A lot of women hide behind the idea they had to go back to work for the money, when they actually want to go back to work," says Karen Miles, who has advised big companies about retaining female talent in the workforce. "It's something else to do, something to think about. It's adult time - you get to go to the toilet without being watched, and there is self-satisfaction with what you've been doing."

Miles believes women are afraid to admit this because the current social convention is that "good mothers stay home" and you can be judged a bad mum if you don't want to. But she argues that returning to work is often vital to women's mental health, citing research which found that women who returned to work by the time their child was 18 months old reported fewer symptoms of depression than women who stayed home.

Sunday Life reader Sally Breden, who has two small children and works part-time as a marketing manager, says she is a much happier person when she is working: "I'm a better mother, I'm a better wife. I feel like I am more balanced if I have the mental stimulation [of work]. I'm not so focused on the house stuff. When I'm not working I feel like I become really caught up in the little things that don't really matter - like what your kids are eating, how tidy your house is, how much washing you get done."

Seven in 10 respondents are doing some form of paid work, with just 9 per cent engaged in home duties full-time. Encouragingly, more than 80 per cent believe their work gives them some flexibility to juggle family and other commitments, which may be why, given a choice, 64 per cent of working women would opt for a pay rise over more flexibility.

Our respondents seem to have cracked the glass ceiling, with 64 per cent reporting that being female hasn't held their career back at all. But social commentators warn this is probably because gender discrimination these days is more covert than overt.

"It won't be obvious to women," Jane Caro, a former advertising executive and Gruen Planet panellist, says. "Women internalise when held back, they blame themselves. We protect ourselves: if you don't have a hope in hell of getting something, you tell yourself you don't want it."

Caro points out that Australian women still earn nearly 20 per cent less than men, are the most educated in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) but rank 50th in terms of workforce participation and achievement, and will earn a million dollars less over their career than a male peer who graduated from university with lower marks."We're keeping highly educated women in marginal positions. This is talent that we're wasting," says Caro.

Those who did feel their gender held them back at work blamed the work-family juggle or working in a male-dominated industry. Caro argues that workplace flexibility actually holds women back because they're relegated to part-time workers. "It's a real benefit to men that half their competition is removed in their 30s, when the career track really ramps up," she says. "Flexibility is a great double-edged sword for women; we need more flexibility for blokes."

Sally Breden believes switching to part-time work since having children has had an impact on her career. "I would have a more senior role," she says. "I had a manager who didn't have much empathy with having family commitments. I felt the odd one out."

When there was a restructure in her last job, Breden was seated away from her team. "It was like, as the part-time person, I didn't matter as much."

Nearly half of those surveyed who'd left work to have a family believed their career had progressed since they went back to work, while 18 per cent said their position was more junior than before.

Women are generally a prudent and satisfied lot when it comes to money. Two-thirds of respondents don't worry about it on a daily basis or fight with their partner over it. They typically spend between $50 and $200 a month on clothes and shoes, but if they got a $50,000 windfall, 37 per cent would put it towards a home, 27 per cent would go on an overseas trip and 17 per cent would save the money.

SURVEY COMMENTS

"Working full time and maintaining a home is challenging! Especially factoring in social life and exercise."
Anna, 29

"Men are judged by what they do while women are (still) judged by how they look. I want to show what I can do and for that to be the important aspect of my life."
Rosie, 35

"My life has to matter and I want to accomplish that through my work."
Veena, 22

"[I want] a healthy work-life balance – the ability to enjoy life because of work success."
Riwka, 45

 


 

WHY WE DON'T WANT TO HAVE IT ALL

We're studying, pursuing careers, rearing children, running households, squeezing in catch-ups with friends, trying to keep romance alive with our partners and popping in to check up on Mum and Dad. It's no wonder women wish they could say no more often. By Cosima Marriner.

That small, single-syllable word "no" is the one women want to get more adept at saying. Asked which qualities they wanted to nurture, respondents said they'd like to be more assertive and confident, and to stop caring so much about what others thought. "I want to be able to say no to others, instead of always feeling obliged to help even if it is inconvenient," said Miriam, 30.

And it doesn't always get easier with age. "I have always put others first," 57-year-old Helen explained. "Throughout my life I have compromised my needs, wants and desires in order to facilitate those of others. [My] upbringing, coupled with our cultural definition of women as the caring, nurturing, mothering ones, mean that I feel guilty/self-indulgent if I think of me. It is always others first."

Gruen Planet panellist Jane Caro believes women are socially conditioned to feel this way. "Women feel they have to earn the right to exist, they have to be doing something for someone else, or they feel guilty ... If we become more assertive and confident, it gives us permission to say, 'I'm not going to do that.' Then you slow down and only do the things you want to do."

Slowing down and appreciating life is what many of our respondents yearn to do. "Sometimes I feel like it's go, go, go, from one goal on to the next. There are so many things I want to achieve quickly," a 23-year-old said. "I am working on just taking time out to be myself, enjoying life and being thankful for what I have."

Said Kirsty, 40: "To relax and just stop and breathe deeply – that would be nice!"

The stage of life a woman is at often dictates what she considers her biggest challenge. Work/life balance is the key concern for working women, who stress about spending too much time and energy on work, and trying to reconcile their career ambitions with the needs of their family. But once a woman reaches her mid-50s, ageing gracefully becomes the priority for nearly half the survey respondents. To them, this means more than simply looking younger than their years, it's keeping fit and healthy, accepting what age brings, and remaining an active, vibrant member of the community.

At 55, Caro prefers the idea of ageing disgracefully. "There is no doubt that as you get older you become invisible," she says. "If men don't want to fantasise about f...ing you, they disappear you."

Caro welcomes the self-acceptance that comes with age. "The pressure is gone. You think, 'Why did I fear this? I'm going to enjoy it.' I don't think ageing is as bad as people think. The worst thing is that time is shorter. It forces you to focus, so you get a lot done."

Yet beyond our personal worries, we're still very conscious of the bigger picture for the sisterhood; 60 per cent of respondents identified violence against women as the issue that most urgently needed to be addressed. The recent tragic death of Jill Meagher in Melbourne was a chilling reminder that not even your local neighbourhood can be counted on as a safe place for women. Half our respondents also said women needed more support when they were caring for children, the elderly or disabled at home.

So, what would make our lives easier? Money was the top answer, followed by paid help in the home, and more time. Many respondents fantasised about a life in New York, Paris, London or Bali, but just as many said they were content here in Australia.

SURVEY COMMENTS

“I want to be that person that people meet who has a sparkle in her eye.”
Claire, 23

“I had breast cancer about three years ago, so I have really worked hard at stripping my life back to what is important – my daughter and partner, family and friends.”
Linda, 43

“Too often I find I worry more about what other people are thinking than what I think.”
Amy, 23

“We’re constantly living for the future, so I try to do things to better my life in the present.”
Joanna, 19

“Everything always seems to be about someone else. At home the kids come first. That’s a given. The husband also requires some attention if I want him not to stray.”
Jacqueline, 42

WOMEN WHO INSPIRE US

When it comes to being inspirational, forget celebrities. It's women who have made a difference we most look up to.

• Burns specialist Dr Fiona Wood was nominated by 22 per cent of readers as the most inspirational woman for her life-saving work and ability to juggle multiple roles.

"She is a mum, businesswoman, academic. She appears to just get to work and get the job done."
Marie, 56

"She is an incredibly intelligent and driven woman who has managed to raise a healthy family while at the same time being involved in ground-breaking, life-changing medical practice. On top of that, she makes time for exercise!"
Stacey, 25

• Australia's first female governor-general, Quentin Bryce, was nominated by 11 per cent for her grace and femininity.

"She is a mature woman in a position of great responsibility. She is a leader and a trailblazer. She has achieved and demands respect while remaining steadfastly a woman – not aping male characteristics. She's intelligent, driven, competent and likeable."
Margaret, 36

• Julia Gillard was chosen by 11 per cent for being Australia's first female prime minister and for her determination and work ethic.

"She inspires me to break through the glass ceiling. She is a great role model for a future generation of female leaders."
Winter, 24

"Julia epitomises the 21st-century working woman - works hard, sticks with her convictions ... has been forced to navigate her way though a male-dominated industry and has made sacrifices along the way to be the best that she can be."
Claire, 23

• Former magazine editor Ita Buttrose was nominated by 8 per cent of respondents for her trailblazing career.

"Ita stood out at a time when there were few women in senior positions. She showed you could be intelligent, successful, tough, caring, as well as feminine. She still has a lot to say worth listening to."
Nathalie, 46

• Finance Minister Penny Wong was the choice of 6 per cent for succeeding in a world dominated by straight white men.

"She is a strong, principled, articulate and smart woman who also happens to be Asian and gay. And she's doing a great job in a field that has traditionally been male, white and conservative."
Michelle, 37

"She's lesbian and Asian, as am I, and has managed to step through marginalisation to become a politician with the ability to influence the lives of many."
Avilyn, 30