Buried in a recent New York Times education supplement was a chirpy feature entitled Getting Women Back Into the Game. It reported that big US law firms and banks were offering special programs to women who want to re-enter the workforce after years out of it – years spent mothering. These programs were given the perky moniker of ‘‘ mumternships’’.
It’s hard to think of a more hideous Americanism, or a more patronising term – it defines a woman’s place in the workplace entirely in reference to her status as a ‘‘ mum’’.
But the main problem with the ‘‘ mumternship’ ’ was in the fine print. One of the programs, which four major firms had signed up to, offered women returning to the workplace one-year jobs with a salary of $125,000.
‘‘ While the salary is lower than the typical $160,000 paid to associates just out of law school,’’ the article read, ‘‘ the hope is that fellows will be offered permanent positions at the end of a year.’’
If ever a reminder was needed of how little society values the women’s work of mothering, there it is.
Get a good degree, rise quickly in your profession, take time out to raise the next generation, and when you come back? Sorry, princess. The corner office is taken and you’re now earning less than 80 per cent of the salary of the hipster graduate who just bought his/her first suit. Oh, and you have no job security.
‘‘ Mumternship’ ’ is one answer to a very middle-class problem – highly qualified career women who leave the workforce for several years to devote themselves to mothering and find it difficult to regain a foothold in it.
Another New York Times article, published last year, provided a fascinating study of this phenomenon. A journalist went back and re-interviewed a group of women who, a decade previously, had spoken proudly about how they were leaving their high-powered jobs and empowering themselves as full-time mothers and home-managers .
Nearly a decade and a global financial crisis later, and the results of this social experiment were mixed.
Some women had divorced and were substantially poorer than before. Others had suffered psychologically because of the changed power dynamic in their relationships with their husbands . Some had low self-esteem and were bored. Others had found lower paid jobs. Some had husbands who resented them for not contributing to household finances for so long.
Most women (and a good many men) would kill to have the problems these mothers do. Being able to opt out of work for any extended period is a luxury not many of us have.
But the article exposed a fault-line in the battle for gender equity – despite feminism supposedly being about offering women greater lifestyle choice, the immutable reality is that women must do salaried work well into old age if they want to even broach equality with men.
Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan says on average women retire with about half the retirement savings men do, and they live longer. Why should we care? Because the less super women have, the more likely they are to rely on the aged pension, and the blow-out in the aged pension is something we need to watch.
Despite pre-budget focus on the Disability Support Pension, and the affordability of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the old-aged pension costs the taxpayer double what the DSP does, and is growing faster.
When it comes to women and superannuation , Prime Minister Tony Abbott is giving with one hand and taking with the other. While Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme will include superannuation payments, unlike the current Labor-created scheme, the Prime Minister has also pledged to repeal the low income superannuation contribution.
Under this Labor policy, the government tips up to $500 directly into the super accounts of people on incomes of $37,000 or less. These low-paid workers are largely women. The government says the spending was linked to the mining tax, and given the tax’s revenue has fallen catastrophically short of projections , we can no longer afford it.
At the moment, women tend to retire earlier than men, perhaps to keep company with their husbands (who tend to be a little older). But Ryan says that ‘‘ the most important thing that women can do to keep up their super is keep on working’’ .
She welcomes the fact we have a government that is preparing the public for the prospect that future generations will have to work longer. The cultural mood is one of workforce participation – getting women back into the workforce after children, having people work longer, and getting the physically disabled and mentally ill working when and where they can.
Governments are slowly catching up with the cultural change but policy still lags. Childcare is too expensive, super tax breaks are skewed to the rich and not enough is being done to address the gender pay gap. The next battlegrounds are the bias against older workers, and the unpaid work of carers.
It could be that productivity would improve if many of the women who currently work as unpaid carers entered the workforce and paid someone else, someone who specialises in ‘‘ caring’’ , to do their at-home work.
Former prime minister Julia Gillard liked to talk about the ‘‘ benefits and dignity of work’’ . It was a phrase my colleagues and I used to lightly mock (’’Feeling the benefits and dignity of work today, mate?’’ as someone shouts at their crashed computer). But she had a point.
The dignity of one’s work may be questionable at times, but its benefits seldom are.
By: Jacqueline Maley
Originally printed: 5 April 2014
Source: Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition