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Keeping mum: are working mothers jumping ship or being pushed?

28 May 2013

Working mothers are prominent among those discriminated against in Australian workplaces, according to recent statistics. Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick says pregnancy and return-to-work discrimination represents about 20 percent of complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

A key problem is a lack of flexible working arrangements.

Mother of two, Penny Webb says she was forced to leave her career at a large Sydney events company following the birth of her second child, after her boss made it clear there was little room for flexibility with part-time work or alternate arrangements like working from home.

"It just became impossible to return to that workplace at a level that I felt I could balance my parenting and also work," she said.

Ms Webb says she lost a job she loved but the business lost something too. "They lost an employee of 10 years, so they lost intellectual property of 10 years," she said.

Ms Webb says within a period of 18 months, three part-time workers in one department, all working mums with a combined 26 years' experience, were pushed out of the company.

The need to retain women's skills in the face of an ageing population, with the Baby Boomers already beginning to retire, has prompted a number of far-sighted Australian companies to bend over backwards to employ women, including returning mothers. These companies include IBM, Rio Tinto, Oz Minerals, Mirvac, Westpac and ANZ.

These companies seek to promote the retention of women by emphasising flexible work practices such as teleworking, videoconferencing, job-sharing and part-time work.

The ASX 200, however, still has only 20 percent women in senior executive positions. The picture is different in the public service, however, where the number of women in managerial positions has risen from 35 percent in 2002 to 46 percent in 2012.

Many women outside the public service sector are now turning to self-employment, applying their talents, energy and experience to their own businesses.

For Ms Webb, that has meant a full schedule.

She runs an events consultancy, writes a blog and has founded an events and support service for working mums called the Working Mums' Masterclass.

"It feeds my soul, and the consultancy feeds my kids," she said.

Ms Webb says the trend towards self-employment could influence businesses to be more accommodating to working mothers who can only be in the office around day care or school hours.

"A lot of them [parents] are actually employing other parents. So I think that this shift will start to happen and will start to impact traditionally what we call the corporate workplace," she said.

What will change company or business culture is for men, and particularly senior men, to make visible their caring responsibilities in order to access family-friendly work conditions including flexible work.

The Diversity Council of Australia has published a study entitled Men Get Flexible! Mainstreaming Flexible Work in Australian Business, indicating that men are seeking more workplace flexibility, especially young fathers, with 18% of men seriously considering leaving their organisation because of a lack of flexible working arrangements.

The Government has been pushing ahead with reform to encourage businesses to offer flexible work arrangements, with the Fair Work Amendment bill expected to go up for a vote in Parliament before the September election.

The legislation provides employees with the right to request flexible work arrangements to help them balance work and family life, although it does not require businesses to accommodate these requests.

It is clear that employers need to be careful; not only is there a risk of losing valuable employees when family responsibilities become high on the agenda, if handled poorly, discrimination claims may arise. Watch our video to see Elma's performance appraisal meeting with Sarah; is this gender discrimination?

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