Working mothers: having it all, just not at the same time.

Both of these women – who are in their late twenties –  have always been ambitious but it’s always been quite different to my own myopic ambition at the same age. They have taken twists and tuns with their careers and have always had an open mind about what might constitute personal happiness and success. I trod a much more linear path up the career ladder until I jumped off it altogether and went my own way.

As Bron, Zoe and I shared sushi and tuna tataki earlier this week, I told them about how I’d spent part of my day hand-writing envelopes to post out the free movie tickets to mamamia competition winners and how I’d conscripted Coco to stick on the stamps. We laughed about how different this was to the days when I had a PA, dozens of staff and umpteen work experience students to do such menial tasks. They even bought my fruit.

So do I have regrets about leaving the fast track?

The Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare, Women & Youth, Sophie Mirabella, wrote in The Punch today that the shrinking number of women in the top management of Australia’s big companies may have nothing to do with discrimination and everything to do with choice. Maybe, she suggests, women just don’t WANT to break through the glass ceiling. She writes:

Some professional women have come to the conclusion that, as our
Governor General Quentin Bryce so eloquently put it, “you can have it
all, but you can’t have it all at the same time”.
Undoubtedly there are women deciding that the “work/family” balance
just gets too out of whack at the highest professional level, and they
are making the decision that “having a life” comes before pursuing a
career – for now at least.


Perhaps it’s no co-incidence that this data on women’s declining
role at the Executive level is released on the same day that a study by
the University of Sydney shows that Australians work some of the
longest hours in the developed world.

About one in five Australians now work more than 50 hours a week –
and in professional jobs, there’s no doubt that proportion is much
higher.  What time does that leave for having, let alone enjoying, a

The trend towards women taking up part-time employment and rapidly
increasing participation rates in those aged over 50, also suggest that
family-based decision making might be a factor.
Perhaps women are making the “sacrifice” of not pursuing their career
in order to ensure that they are able to manage the work of running a
home and caring for young children, of which working women still do the
lions share in most Australian households.

A recent study found that on average Australian fathers spend just
one minute a day alone with their children during the working week.
One minute a day. 

The argument could of course be made that women are being “forced”
to take up the slack because men still aren’t taking equal
responsibility – that for all the advancements over the years, we are
still essentially “chained” by the drudgery of these “chores”.

No doubt a case can be made for the need for quality childcare, for
family friendly and flexible workplaces, for the menfolk to pitch in
with the housework more – and these are all factors that affect women’s
participation and advancement in the workplace.


But before we cry “gender foul” and raise the spectre of
discrimination and the need for “quotas”, we must also allow for the
possibility that a growing proportion of women- including university
educated professional women – have made a choice not to pursue their
careers to the highest levels.  That they’ve worked out where their
priorities (and the joys in life) actually lie. 

We must allow for the fact – not often debated and discussed in
polite circles –  that many women, while immensely enjoying their
careers, view parenting as their most satisfying and important role in

There is truth to what she says and I am proof of that. I could have chosen to continue my corporate career in management but I pressed the eject button two years ago when I left what was then Australia’s leading media company, PBL. I ejected for a number of reasons including the fact that I was no longer fulfilled by the constant politics and stress and people management that comprises any management role.

HOWEVER. I don’t think we should let companies and business and governments off the hook so easily. If women are walking away from their corporate careers because it’s too hard to balance those demands with the demands of having a family or a life, we have to ask why.

Is it because there isn’t decent, affordable childcare? Is it because the demands of corporate life are unrealistic and not conducive to ANY kind of employee life balance? Or is it just because the next generation of women are defining their success in the broader context of their lives and other priorities?