Is the hardest choice women make, about to get a little bit easier?

ACTU president Ged Kearney.





Today, the Australian Government has announced it’s going to give more employees the right to request flexible working arrangements.

Pregnant women, new mothers and carers will soon have their right to ask their employer to work around their own personal needs enshrined in legislation – IF the Government has its way.

Ged Kearney, President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions thinks this is a good start but that far more needs to be done to make sure that new mums and pregnant women aren’t discriminated against at work.

She writes exclusively for Mamamia…


When I fell pregnant with my first child I was a 23 year old nursing student. I’ll never forget the moment I found out and the dread I felt telling the nuns who managed the hospital that I’d need to take a break from my studies.

I was worried that my career would end before it had begun. Family friendly work or study arrangements were unheard of then for a student nurse. It was commit full-time or nothing at all.

But I was lucky.

My wonderful, supportive mother vouched for me. She sat down across from my employer and informed them that I had the necessary support to return to nursing once the baby was born.

So I moved in with my mum, gave birth to my beautiful baby girls (twins) and 7 weeks later I resumed my nursing studies. My husband – a chef also on irregular hours – and I had two more babies.1


It was a haze of shift work; dropping kids off at kinder, school and childcare; picking them up; making ends meet and trying my hardest to be everything to everyone, a good mum and an effective nurse.

I’m not sure how I did it but I do remember popping a bottle of champagne the day my youngest finally started school.

Don’t get me wrong. There are no regrets. I don’t wish I’d given up nursing. But a system sympathetic to the needs of working mums would have made life a hell of a lot easier.

Twenty years later women are still being forced to choose: work or family. Want both? Then society still dictates severe consequences in the form of overwhelming workloads, finding yourself in insecure work and loss of wages and superannuation.

We still lack meaningful laws to give women a genuine and enforceable right to find a balance between family and work. This week Julia Gillard acknowledged the importance of this issue – she’s the first Prime Minister to do so in a very long time! – however what was proposed only gives people the right to ask for family friendly arrangements and the employer to say yes or no, end of story… which, in reality, is pointless.

The practical solution is that if an employer is unreasonable then, like all workplace issues, the pregnant woman or new mother or carer of a disabled or elderly adult should be allowed to contact Fair Work Australia so they can judge if the employer really considered the situation. Unfortunately, some employers need to be forced by law to be fair. In the meanwhile women in particular continue to suffer discrimination.


I hear so many stories from distressed women.

A young worker, 24, was on maternity leave with her first child when a letter arrived from her employer stating that her position had been restructured out from under her. While they didn’t say so in as many words, it was clear her employers preferred not to deal with the inconvenience of a new mother on staff. This is discrimination.

A pregnant cashier was having trouble standing all day so her employer cut her hours because she was, they said, ill-equipped to handle the demands of the job. An alternative solution would have been to give her a chair. This is discrimination.

A pregnant waitress was running a busy café, often alone and unable to take any breaks. She expressed concern to her boss that her health was beginning to suffer due the stress of combining a heavy workload with the pregnancy while she was also trying to care for a two-year-old.

Her boss said he would hire another staff member but, unfortunately, they wouldn’t be able to start work until her departure date. Not only is this unfair, it could also be viewed as an occupational health and safety issue where the employer fails in their duty of care.

As a society we know the  importance of child raising; being there to wipe their noses, celebrate their ‘first times’ and hold their tiny hands as, one by one, they learn life’s lessons. We are also taught to value financial stability, secure employment and superannuation. Yet it’s this same society that allows motherhood to be the impetus for a stripping away of many women’s rights. This isn’t the 1950s. And yet some things haven’t changed.

Should the Hon Julie Collins, Minister for the Status of Women, launch an inquiry into the unfair treatment of pregnant women?

Some employers still treat pregnant women and new mothers like sale items in a store that have lost their value. They find ways to remove the ‘inconvenience’ of women with dual responsibilities of work and family from their employment and the most troubling aspect of all this is that despite it being illegal, they are still able to get away with it.

That’s why we need the Federal Government to launch an inquiry through the Sex Discrimination Commissioner into unfair treatment of pregnant women and new mothers by employers. An inquiry will dig out the skeletons in the closet and assist the government to put in place the right protections.

Have you suffered discrimination in the workplace? Please share your story below because you’re not alone and it’s time to break the silence and stigma. Yes, you can be a mum and you can work.

All you need is an employer to provide an environment where you don’t have to be Super Woman to survive in the workforce. Your kids already think you’re a hero, that’s enough.

Ged Kearney is the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Ms Kearney became a registered nurse in 1985, and has worked in many settings across the public and private acute sectors, predominantly in Melbourne, and has also been a nursing educator, including manager of the Clinical Nursing Education Department at Austin Health. She has a Bachelor in Education.

 Have you seen or experienced discrimination in the workplace?