Work-life balance, the ACTU and a jar full of condoms….

This article late last week, about the ‘work-life’ balance statements of Southern Cross Austereo executive Linda Wayman,  was reacted to with immediate controversy.

As parental rights at work are currently  a hot topic in Industrial Relations and HR circles (our own firm publishing this update just last week), I have to admit being more amused by her comments than anything else.   She claimed that ‘work-life balance’ was ‘bullshit’, and that she had a ‘jar of condoms’at work which she offered to her employees for free, to discourage her employees from having children.  An SCA chief executive defended the comments as ‘obviously tongue in cheek’.

But reading some of the comments on the article, this has clearly has not been accepted as tongue in cheek, and while she has had one or two supporters, Ms Wayman is described in at least two comments as a ‘horrible’ person, and by many others as having a ‘disgraceful’ attitude.  However in my opinion Ms Wayman at least should be applauded for the healthy dose of realism her comments provided, even if the infusion of ‘shock value’ was lacking in refinement.   And credit where it is due, a successful career woman with two children should be entitled to express her opinions freely on this issue.

But this is very important socially and  and philosophically, and  will not be solved long term by ‘tongue in cheek comments’, nor by  knee jerk internet hysteria.  Above all, as an issue it is not being served well by  interest groups such as the ACTU and ACCI tossing it around like a poker chip.

The first major problem is that contemporary discussion has tended to confuse the issues of ‘work-life’ balance and ‘gender equality’.  These are not the same thing, and to conflate them in discussion is extremely damaging to the progress of either cause.   To discuss ‘work-life balance’ as if it is an issue that concerns women more than it concerns men simply reinforces and perpetuates the notion that woman inherently hold primary responsibility for the care of children.  At the same time it undermines the rights (and obligations) of men in society in asserting their own interests in balancing home and family.  While it is accepted that woman are required to contribute more to the biological process, this is a short term factor.  There is no practical reason why women should be disadvantaged at work.  There is also nothing in the ‘black letter’ law of employment that currently  differentiates between men and women with respect of parental rights.   But the pay gap refuses to close, the ‘glass ceiling’ holds strong, and there are more men named Peter running ASX200 companies than women.    Conversely, those men seeking flexibility at work to contribute to their families often face greater resistance from employers than their female colleagues.  This issue is not a legal issue, it is a cultural issue.  And it will continue to pervade until it is properly addressed as such.

Secondly, when it comes to concepts of ‘work’ and ‘life’, there are no objective truths.  Each to their own.  It is common place to find people on the internet and social media spruiking their own family values – and this can often spill over from the subjective and anecdotal to the objectively prescriptive.  “I live this way with my family and it works for me, ……. so you should too”.  However any occurrence of someone publicly indicating that they have factored career considerations into their family lives is met with controversy.  The mere suggestion that one has considered having less children (or dare I even say  “no” children) to focus on other aspects of their life is often met with criticism.  Ms Wayman being described as ‘horrible’or ‘disgraceful’, for example,  are very strong responses to someone merely advocating contraception in a tongue in cheek manner to those seeking a career.  At no stage did Ms Wayman suggested that having a career was in any way preferable to having a family, and even if she did, is this opinion really that offensive to families?  The media and internet is littered with the mantra that family is everything, and career means nothing – and we rarely see career  minded individuals with small families (or no kids) describing this view as ‘disgraceful’.  As a parent myself I understand how much family and children become your ‘whole world’, especially while they are young.  In some ways this is instinctively ingrained into our evolutionary identities.  But herein lies the subjectivity – your children are your ‘whole world’, not the actual ‘whole world’.  Expressing a view that having less children has some advantages is not a criticism of your children.

Finally, we need to take ownership of our choices, and the consequences of those choices.  There is a considerable difference between a legal ‘right’ to pursue a particular course within life, and an ‘entitlement’ to every benefit accrued by that course.  In a free society such as ours, life is full of a wide range of opportunities for fulfillment.    We have the opportunity to do many things, but unfortunately we can’t do everything, and I believe it’s important to acknowledge these choices.  There are a great number of people that chose to pursue large families and / or quality family life as a priority far above career or work.  There are many that forgo families all together to focus on work.  (Not forgetting the very broad category of people for whom having a family is simply not an option for whatever reason.)  But our rights to pursue our own course through life is not the same as having an entitlement to the whole package.    Those people, like myself, that chose to balance work and family have to accept that their careers will not be quite as high reaching as if they had not chosen to put time and value into their family life.  Conversely, they cannot expect to have limitless opportunities at home. There are sacrifices to be made in the pursuance of any active or full life.  But like everything involving the word ‘balance’, there needs to be some give and take.

* Helen Carter is the Director and founding solicitor at PCC Lawyers, a team of employment practitioners based in Sydney, with many years of combined knowledge and experience in workplace law, industrial relations, workplace investigations and training.  They provide a high standard of excellence and an exceptional level of personal service to a variety of clients in the Sydney metropolitan area, Central Coast, regional NSW and interstate.

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Helen Carter

Helen has practised exclusively in employment and industrial law for over ten years and founded PCC Lawyers in 2010, having previously a partner of a leading Australian specialist workplace relations firm. She is an accredited specialist in Employment Law by the Law Society of New South Wales. Helen is a working mother who is committed to equal opportunities at work. She is a passionate sports fan, particularly in relation to NRL. Both of these are strong themes of this blog. Contact her here.

1 Comment

  1. Rather than distribute condoms, I relate to Ms Wayman’s comments on the issue more through a comparison with food. I agree with her in principle. One’s capacity to eat food is limited. If one takes a certain amount of one food it then usually means that one cannot eat as much of another type.

    Some parents, metaphorically, require the dessert to be left whilst they are slowly and thoroughly eating the main course (or visa versa) and blame their fellow guests for not leaving them a share for later.

    Of course having a fuller life, as one does with children, does not give a person as much time in the workplace to grasp opportunities as has a person with a less full life. But we cannot expect them to freeze part of the food of life until others have digested their own self selected feast.

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