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Why a mid-morning school meeting doesn’t work for working parents

My son is in primary school. Two years ago, the school organised information sessions for parents about the program the school uses to teach literacy. They obviously put considerable thought into it. They scheduled not one, but two sessions, and even arranged childcare to make it easier for parents to attend. But here is the catch. The sessions were late morning and early afternoon. The school is in the suburbs a good 50 minutes travel time from the CBD – meaning you pretty much needed to take the day off work in order to attend and making it inaccessible for many.

The scheduling of these sessions was on the clear premise that those interested in attending would be primary carers of children and that those primary caregivers would be at or near home during the day.

 A “normal” work day for most office workers does not finish until some time after five, often after six. After school care at my son’s school closes at 6.30PM – with care at most schools in our area finishing up at 6PM. After that – extortionate penalty rates kick in. Although the train trip from town to home is 50 minutes, the train timetable is such that there is no train from the Melbourne CBD to my suburb that enables working parents to work a conventional full day, wrapping up at the office at 5PM and make it home in time to collect their children before childcare closes.

My son’s school is not a bad school. The staff are well-intentioned, as no doubt are the administrators setting Metro timetables in some dusty office in town. But the problem is that their underlying assumptions, or failure to understand and take into account how their business decisions interact with other businesses, have significant and profound impact on the broader community, on women’s participation at work, on associated parenting “guilt” and on the stress of running households.

These are not isolated examples.

On 8 March we observed International Women’s Day; a day on which the world celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.

Many companies used it as an opportunity to review and improve their policies and procedures to make changes that support greater participation and advancement of women. This is to be applauded. Much has already been achieved. More is yet to be done.

Discourse on of gender parity has historically focused on employer benefits, addressing harassment and discrimination and on more equitable sharing of domestic labour and responsibilities.

Employers have done a lot and continue to do so. Women have spoken up about blatant exploitation and harassment through movements such as #metoo.

I’ve been very lucky, through choice or circumstance, to work for employers and managers who value family as well as work, and who have arrangements in place that are respectful of family commitments: flexible work practices, access to technology, trust to make the right priority calls. 

As a sole parent, sharing of domestic labour / administration is not really an option. My son picks up some, I am lucky enough to be able to outsource some and I do the rest.

The thing that would make the biggest difference for me – and I dare say many others irrespective of where we sit on the socio-economic spectrum – would be a conscious focus, by all, on the assumptions that underpin our choices and decisions and the impact that those decisions have on gender parity.

The great opportunity now is to address the underlying assumptions that affect the day to day things holding women back from full participation in the economy and in life: the assumption that all women of child-bearing age want to / should have kids, the assumption there is a primary caregiver at home during the day, the assumption that all women have a domestic partner / family support to share the load, the assumption that it’s a woman’s role to run a household and provide the vast majority of (unpaid) domestic labour, the assumption of the nuclear family – that carries with it the assumption of two adults in the household and fails to take into account the very real need to care for ageing parents.

It is the parenting / family guilt, and the stress caused by the logistical challenges these assumptions present, that remain a significant factor preventing society from unlocking the true potential of women in the economy, in politics and indeed in life. These challenges also often have a profound effect on women’s mental and physical health.

So while I do celebrate all that has been achieved – and my personal good fortune to enjoy workplace flexibility and good career options – I also continue to push for change, lobby politicians, challenge bureaucrats and school administrators – as well as my own assumptions – and put the challenge out beyond the workplace.

Through the choices and decisions we make – in business and at home – we all have a part to play in the quest for true gender parity. Consider the assumptions that underpin how your organisation and you personally operate. Are they supportive of gender parity? What is the impact of your business decision on your customer? Not just in isolation – but in how it interacts with other services they may need / access?

It doesn’t take much to schedule one of those school information sessions in the late afternoon / early morning so that full time working parents can attend – or move one train to allow working parents to collect their children on time.

Written by Monika Lancucki who is a former lawyer and now works in corporate affairs. She is passionate about unlocking the potential of people, issues affecting women, diversity, social justice and economic empowerment. This article was originally published on Women’s Agenda as The obvious wins have been won – it’s time to tackle the hard stuff

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