While much work is being done to improve equity and fairness in the workplace, many women face the relentless challenge of balancing their job with the lion’s share of domestic labour and parenting duties. Emma Williamson explores the need for change not only at work but on the home front as well.

Lately I have been reflecting on the demands of parenting small children. Trying to grasp the patchy memories of so many balls in the air and the deprivation of sleep and solitude that comes from this immense responsibility. I remember the exhaustion of years of broken sleep, of learning to become a morning person and the feeling that “this will pass” and I will get my life back when they are older.

I have had to adjust to the fact that parenting teenagers requires a whole new set of skills. There are new tools required for the kit and it is a long way from easy. The move to parenting is not one shift but several. Sometimes these shifts happen without warning, and other times they come as a pre-emptive strike to try to re-steer the ship and avoid a perceived disaster ahead. It’s a team effort with no clear instruction manual.

There is a lot of talk about what can be done through government and corporate policy to welcome women back to the workforce. About ways that women can stay connected. Ways that they can seek part-time work that allows them to progress their career rather than stand still or go backwards. Ways that we can address the fact that (in architecture at least) so many women leave in the decade from their late 20s and never return.

If the workplace is changing to support women in their endeavour to work, then what are some of the traps we can fall into at home that might be holding us back as we search for equity and flexibility? Getting women back to work is so important but so is keeping them there, no matter what the stage of parenting.

Being the homemaker

I have been reflecting on the sudden gender divide that happened when I gave birth to my first child. My husband and I had gone to university together and worked together. We both considered ourselves fierce feminists. Yet when we started our family it was an almost instant shift to gendered roles: I gave up full-time work, and he stayed in full-time work. At the time if seemed the efficient thing to do. We both thought it was just a phase. But it has been harder to shift than we first imagined.

The pivot begins at birth. Breastfeeding binds women and children, and ensures that we stay close. But when not performing this miracle of sustenance, we women are looking around for ways to make ourselves useful…. and inevitably turn our attention, energy and intelligence to conquering the domestic situation in full. The laundry, cleaning, cooking – slowly but surely these start to fall under the job description of the person who is at home the most. I call this mistake number one.

A new sense of identity is borne – a new set of homemaker skills mastered. And over time there is a shift – whether we plan it or not – as we pivot away from the professional identity that previously defined us. At mother’s group we start to be defined by whether or not our baby is a good sleeper (evidently this is a reflection on your parenting skills), introducing our baby to solids, crawling, walking… I remember going to mother’s group (where I lasted three weeks) and being absolutely shocked that no one asked me what I did for a job.

Shifting perspective on childcare costs

And then as we move out of the sleep-deprived, breastfeeding fog, the topic of re-introducing work becomes part of the family conversation. There is the time away from the baby to consider, the desire for meaningful work and the cost that will come with care. This time is often defined by mistake number two – comparing the cost of childcare and associated domestic assistance with the amount of money the mother will earn. The biggest mistake we can make is starting to silo the women’s part-time income in relation to the costs of keeping the machine of the family going.

These costs should be seen as part of the family budget as a whole and in consideration of the long-term earning capacity of the family. The pay gap will continue to widen if we don’t make this important shift in thinking. We need to see this return to work as an investment – an investment in maintaining a professional working life and an investment in communicating to our children the important role that women play in providing for our families and contributing to society outside the home through meaningful work.

The burden of the flexible worker

Many women I know who have taken a break for children have returned to the workforce by creating their own small business. Often this is inspired by the desire to manage their own time and be highly flexible. They become the person in the family who can drop everything if required. Mistake number three may seem minor but it reinforces the inequity that often exists within families when we consider the relative importance of people’s work lives. Who stays home when your child is unwell? (Answer: usually the person who is working part-time or self-employed). This devalues the contribution of the part-time worker and has a proportionately greater impact than the full-time worker missing a day.

Sharing the load

In our family we have learned that the demands of parenting do not ease up once our precious bundles could see themselves off to school on the bus – actually in our experience the need to be present at home has intensified with the teenage years. It’s all hands-on-deck and has required re-thinking the division of domestic labour and parenting duties that worked when the kids were younger.

As the CEO, Chief Operating Officer and Senior Project Manager of the family it can be a challenge to let go of engrained patterns of responsibility. It can be hard to step back and let the other parent drive the boat for a while. To actually step back and not try to pull puppet strings from the side is something that is a daily challenge to me. Mistake number four is a combination and consolidation of all previous mistakes and the inflexible norms that exist within our workplaces.

It’s entirely possible that women and men would benefit from more flexibility in the workplace – and ultimately so would our teenagers. Our kids don’t just need mothering – they need parenting and it’s a project we should all be working on. It’s not wholly in the hands of the family to change these dynamics, nor is it in the hands of the workforce. These two domains will never succeed in creating equity if they do not work together.

How’s that for a series of motherhood statements!

Emma is a co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Fulcrum Agency and has more than twenty years’ experience working in design practice. She currently Chairs the Design Review Panel for the City of Canning and sits on the Design Review Panels for the City of Rockingham and City of Stirling. She was recently selected as a member of Western Australia’s newly appointed State Design Review Panel.

Emma was the inaugural Chair of the Australian Institute of Architect’s National Committee for Gender Equity and is a frank advocate for creating working environments that allow parents to maintain sustainable working lives. She is also an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at Monash University.

Photo: Bo Wong