Tag Archives: Work-life balance

Educating Rosie

Head on over to Giovanni’s place, and check out his fascinating post that starts with Rosie the Riveter, and ends up with… well, that would be ruining the punchline, wouldn’t it. Just go read it.

Educating Rosie, at Bat, Bean, Beam – a weblog on memory and technology

Tell me something I didn’t know already

It turns out that getting good quality childcare is critical in allowing mothers to work. This time, policy makers might just get around to believing it; the claim is based on a paper prepared by the Australian Treasury.

Childcare key to mums returning to work

Well, that’s a no-brainer result. It seems perfectly consistent with my own experience, and with the reported experience of women in my family, and my friends.

It’s not just childcare for littlies that matters either. Good school holiday care makes a big difference to me. As you may know, I do adjunct work at local universities (just take all the problems associated with adjunct work as read – I find it too exhausting to think about the difficulties). One of the big problems for me is school holiday care. I need to make special arrangements with my partner, my friends, my mother (bless her!) to cover the two or three hours here or there that comprise my teaching work. Not enough work to justify the expense and hassle of taking the children to a whole day school holiday programme, but far too long to leave them kicking their heels outside the classroom door, or in the classroom reading a book. I’ve yet to find a university that provides school holiday care for permanent staff, let alone adjunct staff, despite all their fine words about gender equity and work life balance and being an employer of choice for women.

Yes, yes, I have my grump on. I’ve just been running up against the gap between ideals and reality in the last week or so.

You can download the Treasury article from here.

The New Zealand Working Women’s Charter – A Celebration

This is the charter that was adopted by the New Zealand Federation of Labour in 1980.

1. The right to work for everyone who wishes to do so.
2. The elimination of all discrimination on the basis of sex, race, marital or parental status, sexuality or age.
3. Equal pay for work of equal value – meaning the same total wage plus other benefits.
4. Equal opportunity of entry into occupations and of promotion regardless of sex, sexuality, marital or parental status, race or age.
5. Equal education opportunities for all.
6. (a) Union meetings to be held in working hours
(b) Special trade union education courses for women unionists to be held with paid time off for participants
7. Equal access to vocational guidance and training, including on the job training, study and conference leave.
8. Introduction of a shorter working week with no loss of pay, flexible working hours, part-time opportunities, for all workers.
9. Improved working conditions for women and men. The retention of beneficial provision which apply to women. Other benefits to apply equally to men and women.
10. Removal of legal, bureaucratic and other impediments to equality in superannuation, social security benefits, credit, finance, taxation, tenancies, and other related matters.
11. Special attention to the needs and requirements of women from ethnic communities as they see them.
12. Wide availability of quality child care with Government and/or community support for all those who need it, on a 24-hour basis, including after school and school holiday care.
13. Introduction of adequate paid parental leave (maternity and paternity leave) without loss of job security, superannuation or promotion prospects.
14. Availability of paid family leave to enable time off to be taken in family emergencies, e.g. when children or elderly relatives are ill.
15. Sex education and birth control advice freely available to all people. Legal, financial, social and medical impediments to safe abortion, contraception and sterilisation to be removed.
16. Comprehensive government funded research into health questions specific to women.

Reading through the list, it’s impressive that so many of these ideals have been realised, at least formally, in New Zealand law and employment practice. But at the same time, it’s a little shattering to realise that in some ways we are still fighting the same battles that women were fighting thirty years ago. Take a look at item 16: we still have medical barriers to abortion, imposed by individual doctors, and by the requirement for women to get two doctors to give consent to abortion. The formal barriers there have not yet been removed. Or look at item 10. Although the legal impediments to equality in superannuation have been removed, the patterns of working women’s lives, with many years taken out for child bearing and child rearing, and more taken out in order to care for other family members, all of it unrecognised as work of value, means that women have less opportunity to save for their old age, and older women figure disproportionally in poverty statistics.

For all that, what a long way we have come. My daughters will grow up with so much more freedom, so many more real choices, because of the work that was done by people like Sonja Davies and Margaret Wilson and Liane Dalziel and Anne Else and Dale Williams. For the story behind the charter, and an account of what conditions were like for women in the years leading up to its adoption, read this piece by Sue Kedgley, The Working Women’s Charter, from a feminist perspective.

The Labour History Project is running a seminar to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Working Women’s Charter, Working Women: Learning from the Past Looking to the Future, on the 1st of May, May Day, in Wellington. You can download the registration form: PDF (2.1mb) here.


Snippet 1
My dad sent me a link to a radio program on pay equity (first link on this page), also linked from The Hand Mirror. Thank you, Father Strange Land.

Snippet 2
On Monday, local paper The Advertiser ran a story about diet pills creating cardiac risks, right above an invitation to join the 10-tonne challenge. All the usual imagery and tropes apply.


You will notice it is just women who bear the risk, according to the ’tiser, though the press release about the study made no such comment, and the research paper doesn’t single out women either. In fact the research paper only mentions women, and men, in the context of stating how many women and men use diet pills.


PDF of study – 346 KB


Snippet 3
I have finished all my marking, for the time being.

Snippet 4
Our dishwasher has broken down, irreparably. We have been dishwasherless for about a week now, and this sad state of affairs is set to continue until Saturday. The experience has reminded us that dishwashers are indeed labour-saving devices.

Work-life balance; we’re doing it wrong

Professor Barbara Pocock, of the Centre for Work and Life at the University of South Australia, thinks that we shouldn’t be talking about work-life balance at all. We should call it work-life interference, and try to measure how much work interferes with our life.

Professor Pocock leads a research team that conducts an annual survey relating to work-life in Australia. The survey has been running for three years now, so she and her team are starting to be able to pick out some trends. The most recent survey shows that part time work is no magic solution to the work-life balance struggle.

Professor Pocock, director of the Centre for Work and Life at the University of South Australia, told The Weekend Australian full-time working women should not kid themselves that going part-time would solve their problems.

“A third of full-time working women overall, 40 per cent of mothers and 25per cent of women without children, say they would rather work part-time,” she said.

“But this study suggests a lot of women will be disappointed by the amount of emotional relief they get by going part-time. On average, it will be better, but it is certainly not as big a change as you might expect.

“Everyone thinks those two free days mean you can run a house without help. So women tend not to purchase substitutes for their own time — they are much less likely to use a cleaner. But on the other side of that is a workplace that is often asking you to work from home or be available on those days off.”

I was deeply relieved to hear that. My own experience, having worked both official part time hours, and as a casual, is that the juggle gets no better. If I am working part time, then the amount I do at home and in the community simply increases, and my overall commitments don’t decrease. I could forego the community work, but I don’t do a lot of that anyway, and for the most part it’s centred around my children’s school, which relies heavily on volunteer parents (mostly mums, but quite a few dads too). Other parents at my daughters’ school say the same; if they do less paid work, then they simply end up doing more housework. Of course, data is not the plural of anecdote, and until now, my evidence has been only at the level of anecdote. So it’s rather nice to have my suspicion that part time work is a crock confirmed.

But it part time workers are unhappy with their work-life balance, full time workers are even less satisfied, especially mothers. Here Professor Pocock has some interesting data. Overall, about two-thirds to three-quarters of workers are satisfied with their work-life balance. However, over the three years that the study has been running, men’s satisfaction with work-life balance has remained about the same, but women’s has decreased (p.25 of full report). Professor Pocock speculates that this may have something to do with the economic downturn. The survey was conducted in March 2009, when the downturn was still very much heading down. Elsewhere, we’ve seen that although more men are losing jobs, creating the so-called “man-cession” (like, d’oh, go get a job in the caring sector, where lots of women have retained their jobs), women have remained responsible for the daily balancing of household budgets (Time article, UK Government Equalities Office report PDF – 528kb), creating extra stress for them, and perhaps adding to the daily struggle to balance work and life.

It does seem that a bit of flexibility is part of the answer; employees who asked for and were granted flexibiltiy in thier work arrangements reported much less work-life “interference” (Professor Pocock’s term – more on that below). Unsurprisingly, employees who were not granted flexibility remained unhappy, but so too did employees who were granted only a bit of flexibility, not all the flexibility they had asked for (p. 67 of the full report). It’s an all or nothing deal. Professor Pocock suggests that this means that legislation needs to do more than allow employees to ask for flexibility. It needs to put some onus on the employer to grant it if at all possible.

There’s lots of fascinating data in the report. It’s all available on-line, along with several press releases, from the Centre for Work and Life’s homepage.

But… work-life “interference.” I can see why Professor Pocock uses this term; a lot of the work is based around asking respondents to what extent they feel that their work interferes with their life. I’m not so keen on that, because no matter what, if you and the kids are to be fed and clothed and educated and housed and kept healthy and tended when unwell, then someone’s got to work, either running a business or as an employee, or at the most basic level, growing food and making shelters and clothes. Irrevocably, work is part of life, and one way or another, we have to find a way to juggle work commitments with family and life commitments. I prefer to see it as a juggle. That to me captures the sense that work is part of what we do, not something that interferes with what we do. It’s one of the many things we need to manage. “Juggle” also captures the sense that if just one thing goes wrong, a slight mishandling, a ball that’s a bit too heavy or fraction larger than the others, then unless we are very, very skilled, or very highly resourced (family and friends nearby to help, sympathetic employer, plenty of money to buy your way out of trouble), or just plain lucky, then it will all come crashing down.

But that’s a mere quibble. This is a fascinating project, and it will be interesting to see what comes out of it in future years.

Cross posted

Update: Per the comment from TheDeviantE, I have edited the post by replacing the word “gyp” with “crock.”

Stranger in the House

Before moving to Australia, I spent a few years working in the New Zealand public service, as a policy wonk. As part of that job, on occasion I had to go and sit in the House, ready to advise the Minister sponsoring a bill should the opposition raise a tricky technical point. My colleagues and I were literally on the floor of the House of Parliament, even though we were not elected. We sat to the right of the speaker, and slightly behind, on a bench (padded, thank goodness). There was a line over which we were never, ever to cross. Only elected Members of Parliament could go beyond that line. Woe betide the innocent public servant who answered the Minister’s beckoning finger, and put a foot over that line. A parliamentarian would leap to her or his feet and shout, “Stranger in the House!” and the offending official would be removed.

I never put a foot across the line. Nor did my colleagues.

There is good reason for the rule. It came about when Charles I tried to charge into the House and deal with his critics face to face. He was not a large man, so chances are he wasn’t going to have a great deal of success in monstering people. But he did have the power of the monarchy behind him, so even if he could not have dominated Parliament physically, he could nevertheless do so through the power of his position. Unsurprisingly, the Parliament was not impressed, and so it ruled that no men (hah!) who had not been elected to Parliament could enter the chamber (aside from the servants, such as Hansard reporters,* and messengers). It’s an important rule in Westminster-style parliamentary democracies, that parliaments should be able to debate without fearing the influence of outsiders, or strangers.

But four centuries later, when our society has completely changed, and in countries like Australia and New Zealand and the United Kingdom and Canada and Sweden and Denmark and Norway and Iceland (I could carry on, but you get the picture), Parliament is sovereign, and held to be sovereign in the hearts and minds of people who live in those countries, you might think that the Stranger in the House rule could be relaxed.

Think again. Just last week, in the Australian Federal Parliament, a Senator and mother, Sarah Hanson-Young, was separated from her two year old daughter, for no good reason other than the Senate President deciding that the child was a Stranger in the House. There’s an excellent commentary by Blue Milk, posted at her own place and at Hoyden about Town, and another on Andrew Bartlett’s blog. Both make the point that this was very much an exceptional circumstance; Senator Hanson-Young had made good arrangements for childcare, but a Senate division was called early, and she needed to be there for her vote to be counted. In her usual practice, she was walking her daughter down the corridors to say hello to her colleagues, and goodbye to her, when the bells rang. She had just four minutes to get into the House and be counted, not enough time for her to get back to her office and hand her daughter over to her trusted and beloved nannie. Caught out, she did the only thing possible, taking her child into the House, so that she could do the most trivial part of her job, simply being there as part of the head count. On the order of the Senate President, her daughter was taken away from her, in tears. Hanson-Young stayed there, in tears herself, in order to be counted. She has an account of the events here; it’s very obvious that these were highly unusual circumstances.

Talkback radio (apparently – I don’t listen to it) and letters columns in the paper were filled with outrage. How dare this woman expect to take her baby into her workplace! Other parents don’t get to do such outrageous things!! Sort your childcare out, lady, and don’t come bleating to us!!!

But… but… but…

Other parents do take their children to work. anjum has done it, and so have I, on occasion, when I needed to get something finished at work. All of my daughters have attended meetings, gone to tutorials, and sat quietly in the corner of my office while I have cleared my e-mail and gathered up some work to take home for the day. It happens. And really, the world doesn’t end.

The “Stranger in the House” rule needs to change, to accomodate parents. In the olden days, a child would have been at home with her mother, and it would have been her daddy who was the senator. These days, senators and MPs are female and male, parents and childfree, straight and gay, not as many colours of the rainbow as would be nice, but nevertheless, no longer predictably white, male, middle class, and with a nice wife at home to carry all the childcare. Just maybe, it’s time for the rules to change to reflect that.

The diehard traditionalists might try to argue that if we let two year old strangers into the house willy nilly, then by the operations of the dread slippery slope, fairly soon there will be armed soldiers in there demanding that votes go a certain way. But like all slippery slope arguments, that’s just absurd. Usually, with a slippery slope, it’s very easy to make judgements about each end of the of slope. This is a bog standard feature of slippery slope arguments; the slippery difficult bit is in the middle, not at either end. We all know damned well that a two year old child is not going to influence which way the Senate votes, and is not going to distract her mother from the important task of being counted (if you haven’t clicked through to them already, you should really read anjum’s and Blue Milk’s posts about this point). We also all know that it would be a terrible thing for our democracies to be subverted and taken over by strangers in the house bearing guns. Somewhere in between these two extremes, there is a cross over point, where the harmless entrance of a child turns into undue influence. But Senator Hanson-Young and her daughter were nowhere near that point.

If we are going to be serious about supporting working parents, and supporting work-life balance for all workers, including parents, then we need to look at some of our work practices. We need to get a lot more flexible. That includes being flexible about when children can accompany their children to work. And it includes thinking long and hard about whether some of the rules we have operated by in the past are really still relevant today.


* Yes yes yes. I know that Hansard did not start until a later time, but I am taking the opportunity to cast a nasturtium an aspersion about just how public servants are regarded.

Re-imagining work – part 3

Cross posted
Part 1
Part 2

My mother spent many years teaching in a Montessori pre-school, and then running it, first as a teaching principal, and then later, when the school was big enough, as a non-teaching principal. I was fascinated by the Montessori method, and my own children went to Montessori pre-schools (although, alas, for reasons – work related ones, of course – we eventually sent our younger daughters to a pre-school in our suburb that offered much better hours for working parents).

Children in Montessori schools complete “works.” A work is a task, an exercise, an activity, carefully structured in the Montessori way, so that the child learns the overt lesson, and the implicit lesson, and achieves something that is worth doing. Not worth doing in some trivial way, but worth doing because of its substance.

For many years, my mother concentrated on the children in her classroom, and on becoming a better and better Montessori teacher. The works she achieved were perhaps teaspoons, teaspoons of great merit and worth. In later years, as principal, Mum started to build the school, growing it from two to four classrooms, establishing a primary school classroom, and nurturing a cohort of excellent teachers. All this in a small city in New Zealand, in a province where education is not always all that highly regarded.

My father achieved much the same level of things in his career, leaving the land after he had married and had three children, and training in accountancy. By the end of his career, he had helped to build a highly successful accountancy firm, and had become an expert in his particular area. Other accountants from throughout the country consult him, contact him with issues they can’t sort out, and he helps them, freely. That is, most of the time, he doesn’t even charge them. He regards it as a service to his profession, and to his colleagues. He also happily talks through the issues with the public servants who develop the policy and laws in his area of expertise, ‘tho he has been known to have full and frank exchanges of views with one or two of them from time to time. Again, he regards this as part of what he should do, because it is important to get it right. And by that, he doesn’t mean that he gets the policy or the law that suits his clients, but that the policy and the law is right. Then he helps his clients to comply with it.

These are people of substance and achievement. To me, their working lives are part of what creates eudaimonia. I’ve written about eudaimonia before, and it’s something that continues to exercise my thinking.

Eudaimonia can be translated as “happiness” but that’s a bit vacuous, and it can be translated as “flourishing” but that doesn’t quite capture the sense of joy that goes with it. When in doubt, I go with “flourishing.” A eudaimonic life is one lived to the full, with friends and family and connection with people. It’s a life which expresses the virtues, of courage and generosity and friendship and justice and so on. It’s one where a person develops and exercises her capacities, and becomes a well-rounded and flourishing person.

(The ancients – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, et al, write about eudaimonia. Famously, however, some of them thought that the best life was the life of philosophical contemplation. I have issues with that, like who does the dishes?)

Here’s the thing. We construct our work current practices in such a way that some people are cut off from meaningful work, work in which they can develop and exercise their faculties, and flourish. Of course, there’s more to life than work, and more to flourishing than work, but work occupies a huge proportion of the preoccupations of the society we live in, and working matters to us. We define ourselves by our work, and those of us who call ourselves housewives feel that we have to do so ironically, or defensively. “That’s Dr Housewife to you!”

Ideally, we would be able to do both – care for children and partners and family, and engage in meaningful work that allows us to flourish. Yet if we nurture our children and partners and family and friends, then necessarily, we can’t devote as much time to work. We end up in part time work, where it can be hard to access the meaningful work of substance that enables a person to flourish. Yes, rearing children and nurturing family are important, and of substance, and worth doing, but you wouldn’t know that, would you, given the subsistence wages paid to those who do it, and the complete lack of recognition of the value of the work.

Before he got all bible based and fundamentalist and homophobic, Orson Scott Card wrote some fascinating and beautiful books. Of his works, the most lyrical one that I have read is Songmaster. It’s a complicated story, but at the end of his life, the lead character, Ansset, comes back to the Songhouse where he grew up. The masters and mistresses of the Songhouse have a room that each has used in turn, the High Room, and at the end of their lives, they may choose the time of their death by exposing themselves to the elements in the High Room. They have done the great Work of leading and guiding the Songhouse, and so they have this honour and privilege. Ansset has never been master of the Songhouse, but at the end of his life, he asks the mistress of the house, “Have I done a Work?” Meaning, am I worthy of dying in this High Room?

As I go through my life, I want, like my parents, and like so many of the people I admire, to be able to say of myself, that I have done a Work. Something of substance and meaning, that is worth doing, that counts, that contributes, that enables me to flourish.

So that’s the challenge. How can we structure work alongside and with family and friends and community so that work is a Work?

More to come, one day soon… and yes, I do have some concrete suggestions!