Women and careers: a story of choice

Countless times throughout my career I've been counselled that I need to choose - often by amazing mothers and full-time career women.

" Am I being unfair, indeed unreasonable, wanting both [family and career]?"
Erica Hardinge, Acting Head of Security Enablement, ANZ

Am I building my career? Or am I part time - and thereby inherently taking a back seat to better positions to support my husband on his career trajectory?

It makes me wonder - am I being unfair, indeed unreasonable, wanting both? My generation grew up with the expectation we could ‘do and have it all’ - but can we?

The media was in frenzy in March after a report from the OECD purportedly labelled stay at home mums "a drain on the economy". 

At the risk of spoiling the fun, the report actually suggested Australia "compares favourably... for labour market participation". Of course the report does state one of the greatest "untapped potentials" is inactive and/or part time working women.

The report also reflected ‘concern’ about the proportion of unemployed youth (less widely reported). Similarly, the media seemed uninterested in our-higher-than average annual separation rate.

Further, the report finds a 12 per cent GDP improvement (over 20 years) across all OECD countries if female participation rates meet men's in the labour force. For men, full time work is still the norm across the OECD.

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The sector in which I work, cyber security, has its share of equality issues.

As Jodie Siganto recently wrote, there is certainly “little doubt that women are under-represented in cyber security.  Research released in 2015 found that, globally, 10 per cent of information security professionals are women". 

As in all sectors, we need to approach the issue of diversity differently if we are truly to gain perspective, achieve change and value from "broader skills and different knowledge".

But can one be both serious about one’s career and work flexibly? How does this fit in an ‘always-on’ world? 

I strongly feel the answer is yes – we can, if we are supported (at work and at home) and if we accept the peripheral choices. Because we can have both - but we can't have it all. There are inevitable priorities, which are different for everyone, we have to make these conscious decisions and own them.

According to Goldman Sachs , young Australian women are better educated than their male counterparts.

In 2014, some 53.7 per cent of 25- to 34-year-old women had attained tertiary education, compared with 42.5 per cent of men, according to the OECD.

What relevance does this pose to part-time employees and “untapped potential”? If more workplaces were able to support truly flexible roles, would workplace participation rates change – encouraging workplace application of such education?

Indeed, if such arrangements were perceived as valuable - would the scales be better balanced with both men and women working flexibly to share the load?

It’s time for flexibility and work/family choices to be equal across genders. This can no longer be about ‘a woman’s choice’.

Perhaps both parents could commit to four day weeks without the (perceived) cost of both careers being impacted.

Failing this, if both parents are encouraged to fully participate in the labour force, who is helping in classrooms, volunteering, developing the social wellbeing of children through play dates, managing specialist appointments and simply playing taxi service to after school activities?

How do families manage to ‘do it all’ and at what cost? Has society investigated the implications of overworked, exhausted parents who are burning the candle at both home and work?

Do we fully understand the long-term implications on children who spend significant time alone or in outside care?

This is all no doubt a worthy subject of other papers and cause of further ‘mummy guilt’. One's best not to ask why only one gender is represented by such a term... 


What is the true economic value of stay at home parents? In a 2013 study estimated it would cost $US113,586 a year to replace a stay at home mum (based on the 10 most time consuming tasks).

Is it possible a more evenly dispersed role of parenting duties, affordable, accessible care alternatives and shared workplace flexibility across genders could benefit everyone?

Recent analysis by the OECD shows among working Australian mothers aged 25 to 45 years who are in partnerships, 45 per cent work part-time and four-fifths of them cite family reasons for doing so.

Of this group, I wonder, how many are happy with their choice - and choose to continue contributing to their family, society and their organisations?  Amongst all of the statistics and figures, is there room for real choice?

Support could indeed be equally as important as the decisions themselves.  I’m thankful my organisation openly supports and encourages flexibility across all roles and of course to my partner who wouldn’t accept either of us ‘taking a back seat’.

Of course recognition needs to be given to those without choice, where financially or otherwise there is only one option. 

"The obligation for working mothers is a very precise one: the feeling one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one's children as if one did not have a job," Annabel Crab once said.

Do you have a choice? Can flexibility be positively valued by society and indeed by both workplaces and family units?

I encourage you to share your story below – because by sharing we may just uncover a better way.

Erica Hardinge is acting Head of Security Enablement at ANZ


The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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