The childfree deserve workplace flexibility too

Making workplaces flexible for all employees may just result in less discrimination against mums, writes Jenny Noyes.

Making workplaces flexible for all employees may just result in less discrimination against mums, writes Jenny Noyes.

I'm not sure when it was that I realised I don't want to be a mum. I think it came to me as less of a lightbulb moment and more of a gradual steeling against my family's insistence, throughout my twenties, that I should "never say never". At 29 and a happily single aunt to eight adorable kids, I can't imagine ever changing my mind.

The absence of maternal feelings in me hasn't triggered dreams of being sterilised like fellow 29-year-old Holly Brockwell – although I completely get where she's coming from. But it has got me thinking about the way our society values and encourages certain pathways in life far more than others. Especially if you're a woman.

Even as a teenager, I strongly empathised with Carrie Bradshaw's complaint that "If you're single after graduation, there isn't one occasion where people celebrate you" (apart from birthdays, but everyone has those). There are no milestones for parties at which single women's choices are toasted; which, as a budding spinster at 19, I felt was a grave injustice.

Ten years later, I'd like to think my concerns have matured a little.

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Unlike Carrie, I don't care so much about asserting my right as a single woman to have non-wedding parties and receive non-baby-shower presents that celebrate my life choices. But more and more, I do care about asserting my right as a single woman to have the kind of workplace flexibility that parents are – and rightfully so – increasingly granted.

You see, while some people make the admirable choice to fill their lives with parenthood, those of us who have no desire to follow them aren't always looking forward instead to a lifelong marriage to our jobs. While work is often an incredibly meaningful and important part of our lives, just because single people don't go home to kids doesn't mean we don't have family or personal commitments that are just as important, to us.

Nor does it mean that we don't have dreams of making a different kind of 'baby'. A book baby, perhaps. Or a study baby. Or a travel baby. Or an artistic baby. These aren't frivolous pursuits, but the notion of workplaces granting significant time out (or everyday flexibility) to follow them is unthinkable for most people. But should it be?

As working mothers are encouraged more and more to participate fully in the workforce, study after study shows they are doing so without men picking up the slack at home. And at the office, women of childbearing age are still too often seen as a liability. Employers continue to favour men because they know fatherhood doesn't demand as much of men - physically or societally - as motherhood does of women. Women are overlooked not just because of sexism, but because many employers assume maternity leave is on the horizon for women of a certain age; and, afterwards, the flexibility most mums find they require in order to cope makes them less attractive than the men and confirmed singles employers assume have no other priorities in their lives. 

As women, policymakers and employers are beginning to realise that flexibility for mothers doesn't necessarily translate to workplace equality, there's a push for fathers to demand more and take this opportunity to reimagine the balance of their work and family lives. But perhaps the real solution is more radical.

Women are constantly dealing with the loaded question of whether we can 'have it all' – but not everyone's 'all' looks the same.

Perhaps if workplaces treated everyone – parent or otherwise – as if their lives and interests outside work had value and legitimacy, the discrimination against mums and potential-mums might fade away. And perhaps all of us would find ourselves with an opportunity to lead more fulfilling lives.

This isn't pie in the sky, either. While Australian workers are working ever-longer hours, in Sweden employers are shifting to six hour work days; and the rise of "unlimited vacation" at workplaces including Netflix, LinkedIn and a host of smaller tech agencies and startups has been the topic of much conversation around the office water cooler.

The idea behind it is that workplaces recognise their employees as adults who value their jobs and their outside lives. Time off is taken as needed, and employees are assessed on their overall performance rather than hours worked. Of course, this is within reason and is negotiated – and sceptics who say it's too good to be true reckon employers are counting on their workers feeling pressured to take even less time off than they otherwise would.

But while I'm as cynical as they come, I can't help seeing this move as an opportunity to challenge the conversation about how leave and flexibility are determined, about who needs (or 'deserves') flexibility and a life outside work, and how the working landscape might change to better accommodate the needs of all.

It's promising that the conversation around women's equality in the workplace is shifting to the role of paternity leave and flexible arrangements for men. But maybe the issue isn't just about making room for parents at work. Maybe the rest of us, rather than 'picking up the slack' at the office, should think about how we, too, could someday have it all – our all. Have the job and the book, or the band, or the Master of Poetry, or the world travel, or the podcast, or the charitable work, or the activism... or the bloody beautiful kids.