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Flexibility the key to a better work environment (2007)

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

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Flexibility the key to a better work environment

Author: Elizabeth Broderick

Publication: Sydney Morning Herald (21 December 2007)

Abattoir slaughter lines and investment banking have more in common than you might imagine. For the predominantly male workers in both industries, there is enormous pressure on men as primary breadwinners. In the former, this is driven by the casualised nature of the work which leads to uncertainty about continuing employment. In the latter, it is the competitive work environment that means career longevity is never assured.

Men have complained that they have been left out of the discussions about gender equality. Part of my national listening tour as Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination is to respond to this concern and to find out from men what gender equality means for them.

We already know that women typically earn less than men, do more unpaid work, are less likely to have full-time jobs, and are more likely to experience discrimination and harassment at work. What is less well known is how this impacts on men. To seriously tackle gender inequality, we need to understand how men are affected by inflexible, traditional ways of working and to understand their aspirations and desires in leading more balanced and fulfilling lives, both at work and at home.

Australian wellbeing indices confirm that in challenging life circumstances - such as low income - men are less likely to be happy than women. While there are many explanations for this gender difference, there is no doubting the impact of job insecurity, lack of control over work and long working hours on men's health and wellbeing.

I am deliberately seeking out the views of men, particularly the experiences of men in different workplaces. I have already sat down with men working in the meat processing sector in regional South Australia and with men from the banking industry in Sydney's central business district.

I was struck by the enormous pressure both groups of men feel as primary (or sole) "breadwinners" responsible for providing for their families financially. The weight of this responsibility only increased where the men were in casual or contractual work with little job security. Some of the men I spoke to don't even seek medical attention for fundamental health concerns because, as casual workers, they would not be paid if they had to take time off.

Men from both groups explained that additional child-care places and more family-friendly work opportunities for their partners would help to ease the financial burden that they bear. The decisions these men and their families made about who works and who cares were largely based on financial considerations and the availability of flexible working arrangements.

Both groups of men felt pressured to continuously demonstrate their wholehearted commitment to their work. For those in the meat processing industry the fear of losing their jobs seemed to motivate this behaviour, while for those in the banking industry, it was a competitive workplace culture coupled with relentless work intensification which drove them.

By contrast, the women I have met on my tour are overwhelmingly the ones taking on the role of primary carer in their families. More accommodating work arrangements such as part-time and working from home, as well as flexible hours and leave practices would clearly help these women reconcile the double shift.

Such arrangements give women the ability to both work and care, securing their economic independence across the life course by maintaining labour market attachment. This desire by many women to stay in paid work is why women have long advocated for flexible working arrangements.

However, men would also benefit enormously if flexibility became the norm in Australia's workplaces, and men in senior workplace roles are well-positioned to drive these changes. A growing number of men with caring responsibilities dearly wish and deserve better working arrangements so they can live more balanced lives where they can care for, and be cared by, their loved ones. A dual equality agenda, where such arrangements are available to the men who are leading the so-called "quiet revolution" in family life and the women who currently need them as a matter of course, would help ease the pressure for everyone.

Elizabeth Broderick is Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination. Contributeto the Listening Tour via the interactive website at