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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Moloney

A personal reflection on the importance of a more gender equal world of work.

This month, we celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8. I welcome all opportunities to celebrate women, as well as highlight areas that need to change to ensure a more gender equal world. While this is incredibly important for a healthy functioning society and individual wellbeing, the fact I have three daughters also fuels my fire about this topic, because I want these awesome little ladies to have every chance of being able to thrive in work and life; the same as any other person in society – male or female.

One particular topic that is close to my heart, is a term that’s referred to as ‘the motherhood penalty’. This term is used to describe the disadvantage that women encounter in the workplace when they become mothers. I feel like there is growing noise about the motherhood penalty – and rightly so. Every time I hear this term, I feel a bit frustrated and resentful to be honest. Not because I don’t agree with the concept of a motherhood penalty, it’s because I have experienced it first-hand since having my first child 13 years ago. What frustrates me the most is, it didn’t have to be that way if workplaces and society were better able to embrace gender equality.

To give you some background of my personal journey, I met my future husband in my early twenties, when I was just finishing a Bachelor of Commerce, with a view to forging a career in the Human Resources (HR) field. My partner was working in an administrative role at the time, not very fulfilled with his work at all, and unsure what future direction he wanted to take. Over the following years we travelled together, I then started my career in HR, and he found an industry of interest and entry level role to begin to forge a career in. We were always on fairly similar incomes at that stage, and cheering each other on as we built our careers and lives together.

When we decided to grow our family, I felt good about where I was at career wise, and was working for a large employer that offered the type of family friendly policies that I knew I needed to help me thrive. At that point in time, the thought of sharing parental leave responsibilities didn’t really cross our minds - it was a pretty rare situation then for dads to take on this role. All of our planning was about me being the primary carer of our child, because that was the norm.

I’m not going to lie, I found becoming a new mum and my whole world as I knew it being turned upside down pretty hard at times. Nothing prepares you for such change, and as wonderful as it is being able to have the opportunity to bring a child into the world, and care for that child, life as you know it is very different. I remember my husband was able to take about one week’s leave when we had our first daughter. When I look back on that now, the whole experience would have been so different if he had been able to access more time off work then. Here we were, being thrust into completely unchartered territory, and then after one week, I’m on my own, doing something I felt completely unequipped for and needing support from my partner. But he had to go back to work, so that was that.

I found my way being a new mum, but that certainly didn’t come without experiencing anxiety, exhaustion, and fear (as well as all of the rewarding stuff of course!). I was pretty good at putting that brave face on though, as many new mothers do, and didn’t open up enough about the relentless challenges. To be honest, there were many times I felt so envious watching my husband walk out the door to work knowing how different his day was going to look to mine. It wasn’t that I was unhappy, it was just that I would have loved to have more balance in my life, and that he could experience what my typical days were like as well. I wanted him to experience being a primary carer and the responsibilities, the mental load, and feelings that come with that, and the chance to also have that time to bond further with our child.

I knew I needed more flexibility and support to be able to make the parenting / work juggle work for us on my return to work, and return in a part-time capacity to have more control over my hours. I felt lucky that I had an employer that had the sort of policies in place around parental leave and flexible working arrangements that allowed me to return to work in this capacity. I knew not everyone had these same opportunities. Over the next few years we continued to grow our family, and I was again the primary carer taking parental leave for all of our children during their first year of their life.

During these years, I watched and supported my husband to see him thrive in his career of choice. Obviously, that filled me with joy and happiness to see the goals he was kicking career wise, and allow our family to be in a better financial position to meet our needs. He completed further study, he travelled for work, he took on more managerial responsibilities, and I was, and am, really proud of him. The extra responsibilities I had to take on in terms of caregiving and managing a household during these years, meant I had to put my career goals on hold and maintained part-time work in a minimal capacity. That was our decision as a family, which I completely accept.

The thing that niggles at me though, is that if there was more opportunity for flexible work arrangements that I could have explored, if there were better workplace provisions for both mums and dads for parental leave, if childcare was more affordable, if school hours were more in line with the demands of working hours, and if society would have seen both mums and dads as having equal responsibility for childcare, household responsibilities and career, it could have been a really different story. I personally took a big financial hit over these years, my superannuation became pretty much non-existent, my professional identity suffered, and I lost confidence in my ability. This is certainly not uncommon for many women juggling parenting and work, and all contributes to what is known as the ‘motherhood penalty’.

If we were starting a family now, I think we would be much more open to looking at options that allowed us both take time out of our careers to share primary carer responsibilities, because thank goodness I am seeing a positive shift towards caring roles becoming more normalised for dads. There is a long way to go, but I am seeing positive changes in government and workplace policies around parental leave provisions, and the role of primary carer. A recent article published by Women's Agenda, discusses fathers and caregiver responsibilities, and highlights some key findings in a report published by Melbourne University on the State of the Future of Work. The article states that shared caring responsibilities are a key to gender equality, and I absolutely agree.

While my children are now 13, 11 and 8, over the last few years I have been able to focus more on my career goals and strive for a more fulfilling balance between work and family responsibilities. There are certainly still many challenges to navigate though, as there are for many families. When I reflect on the years since becoming a mum, I can’t help but think about how the whole experience could have been so different if the world of work, and society, was more focussed on gender equality, to allow both women and men to have every opportunity to thrive at both work and in life.

It’s so refreshing to see more organisations placing greater importance on the employee experience, including providing better family friendly policies for their people. The results of offering more progressive benefits and policies for employees in this space make a significant positive difference to people’s lives, not to mention positive outcomes for business. While there is still a long way to go, I like where the conversation is heading, and I’m really hopeful my three daughters will have a lot more opportunity to thrive in both the workforce and in life. Women need to be encouraged and supported, and given equal opportunities to be able to reach their career and life goals. I’m looking forward to seeing a much more positive shift towards this in the future, but this doesn’t happen without people making some noise!


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