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PPL Programs Help Career Women Stay the Course

29 August 2013

There was for me a telling moment in the recent debate over Paid Parental Leave schemes.  It was during the latest ”Town Hall” Rudd vs Abbot meeting, the moment when Rudd asks the women in the room to put their hands up if they are earning $150,000.  As I was viewing the debate from my computer screen, it was not obvious to me whether ANY hands went up in the room.  For some this “gotcha” moment was all the evidence that was required to prove that the LNP scheme only targets the very rich.

But should this really debate about rich vs poor?  Shouldn’t the question be WHY are there are SO FEW women among this nation’s top earners and why are even fewer reaching the top echelons of the corporate world?

Anyone who has had kids will tell you it’s not just about the money.   There’s the physical, there’s the emotional, there’s the structural and THEN there is the financial.  While most women can chose to manage or “work around” the first two, the last two are completely outside our control.

Structurally the corporate world was not created to accommodate the flexible work practices that allow primary caregivers – mainly women – to stay in the workforce.   Add to that the fact that women are serially paid less than their male counterparts, that going on maternity leave only exacerbates that fact and it’s easy to see why so few of us make it very far.

Because there are so many forces at play, in her book “Lean in” Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg dedicates a chapter to the phenomenon that is women mentally “checking-out” of the corporate world BEFORE they’ve even left it.

In the book Sandberg posits that most women, “head down a challenging career path with the thought of having children in the back of her mind.  At some point (sic when she finds a partner)….a woman considers….that she will have to scale back.    A law associate might decide not to shoot for partner because someday she hopes to have a family.  A teacher might pass on leading curriculum development for her school….Often without realizing it, the woman stops reaching for new opportunities.”

Many working women who have been in this position can completely relate to Sandberg’s assertion.  Most women drop out of the workforce when they have a child but most men don’t.  Sandberg sites statistics that show maternal unemployment rates in this country as well as the US dropping to around 50% for mothers with children under the age of three and then recovering to in excess of 70% when the children are aged six to fourteen.

According to the ABS the median age of mothers is around 31 years old.  This means that a woman who has graduated university at say 22 effectively spends on average eight years in the workforce, then drops out for six (or more if she has two children).  When she returns she finds she is potentially some 10 or more years behind the same male counterparts she entered the workforce with all those years ago.

Returning to work after six weeks or months maternity leave is daunting enough but imagine returning after a 10 years?

As for the women who don’t attend university, I would argue that having less women in senior roles only reinforces the view that there is only so far women can go.  Why bother with education, training, hard work, effort, commitment when the odds are so heavily weighed against success and when so few women make it to the top?

I guess my point is that if we want women of all walks of life to aspire to making it in the workforce, to believing they can one day be the boss, to earning just as much as her male counterparts, we need to foster their ambitions and get them to dare to commit themselves to a career.

In my view providing the financial and structural support for women in middle management (so those who are in their 30′s) is an important part of the equation.

In her book Sandberg asks the question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”  For many women the fear of returning to work is as much about failure as it is about the financial.   So the more we can keep women actively participating in the workforce at senior levels the better.

Unfortunately with so few women leaders at the top it’s no wonder there were so few hands raised in a debate that should have nothing to do with rich vs. poor but everything to do with empowering women to stay the course.