Women at work: holding up half the sky?

A women’s hands BUSINESS

The labour market must be reformed in a positive direction if women are expected to hold up more than half the sky, according to UniSA Business School Emeritus Professor Barbara Pocock.

Widely recognised as one of Australia’s leading employment researchers, Prof Pocock recently gave the Fay Gale Lecture in Adelaide on the topic of women and work.

As well as reflecting on what the past four decades have meant for women in work and life, she also used the lecture to deliver a dire assessment of the Productivity Commission’s draft report into Australia’s Workplace Relations Framework.

Emiritus Professor Barbara PocockProf Pocock (pictured right) says women are going backwards in many ways at work and are at best stalled in the long guerrilla war for gender equality.

“I have always loved the poetic notion – attributed to Mao Zedong – that women hold up half the sky,” she says.

“But when it comes to the contemporary labour market and reviewing its evolution over recent decades, it is very evident that, yes, women hold up half the sky at work, and more than half the sky beyond it – but that the conditions of work continue to actively work against us.

“Women might hold up half the sky, but we don’t get half the returns when it comes to equal pay or adequate flexibility, and we pay a high price in terms of maternal guilt, sexual harassment, and time pressure.”

Prof Pocock’s own journey in the workforce began 42 years ago, as a rouseabout in shearing sheds in New Zealand. She says giving the lecture was a great opportunity to reflect not only on her own journey in the workforce, but on the passage these four decades have meant for women at work.

“Robust reflection on the road we have travelled is essential if we are to move forward intelligently. I want the generation after me to benefit if they can from our experience,” she says.

“I feel angry when we look at what we’re asking of women these days – that they will have an education, they will be in the labour market for at least four decades, and at the same time they will be doing more unpaid work, twice as much as men for some decades ahead.

“We haven’t renovated the labour market anywhere near as much as we need to if we’re really going to address gender inequality and ensure that the skills and the contribution of women are fairly remunerated.

“The Productivity Commission’s draft report sends women backwards. There’s no mention of the 18 per cent gender pay gap between men’s and women’s earnings.

“In fact, one of the main recommendations to eliminate penalty rates in several female-dominated industries will widen the gap rather than narrow it because a disproportionate number of women work on Sundays.

“If we want women to continue to shoulder their burden and hold up half the sky, we must reform the labour market in a positive direction.”

Prof Pocock says politicians and leaders who “exhort women to increase their participation in paid work, to invest in their skills and experience, and to work for longer into old age, have a responsibility to enact change”.

“The $1.5 million lifetime earnings loss for women with degrees relative to their male peers is not acceptable; the growing proportion of women in a labour market where less than half have meaningful flexibility; the shameful political football that our paid parental leave has become – these are all signals we are being taken for mugs,” she says.

“Of course, women are not mugs. So what to do?

“We need more research in all areas around pay, flexibility, sexual harassment, leave, the retirement system and more.

“But on top of that research, organising and creative campaigning matters more. Political organising as women is also essential, given that both major political parties currently let women down.

“We need a lot more institutional support and change to get near anything like gender equality.

“If young women today are to look back on their own 42 years in the middle of this century, and observe real change in gender equality at work, we will need a much stronger and more effective political effort than my own generation has been able to muster, stimulate or execute, and take it from me, we worked hard at it!”