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It's About Time - Foreword

It's About Time


This paper is about one of the biggest challenges facing Australia in the 21st century: balancing paid work and family responsibilities. It's about how we live today, and how we want to live tomorrow. It's about valuing care, valuing families, and valuing happiness.

It's about giving men and women the choices they need to balance their competing responsibilities.

At the heart of this paper is the issue of time. In a period of unprecedented prosperity, many Australians feel time poor. Despite over a decade of economic growth many Australians are not living the lives they want.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) has heard stories of men and women frustrated and disheartened by the struggle to combine paid work and care. These stories are not just about the problems facing parents, but the problems facing those caring for older people and people with disability.

What we heard from the Australian community was a call for support. Support for men and women with family and carer responsibilities. Support for family-friendly workplaces. Support for early childhood education and care. And support for a society which values shared work and shared care.

Too often, balancing work and family is pigeonholed as a women's issue. It's not. While women continue to carry the disproportionate burden of family and carer responsibilities, many men are expressing an increasing desire to have a greater involvement in the lives of their children.

Yet workplace, financial and cultural pressures still put the onus on men to be primary breadwinners and women to be the primary carers. The fundamental human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination should be recognised in all families and workplaces. But while Australians accept the ideal of equality in paid work and family responsibilities, many Australian families do not have the opportunity to make this ideal a reality.

The unequal division of care needs to change. On a personal level, relationships, children, health and happiness can all be the casualties of failing to strike the right balance between paid work and family life.

Governments, workplaces, communities and families and individual men and women all have a part to play in creating a fairer balance between paid work and family responsibilities.

This is not just a matter of personal happiness; it's a matter of economic and social wellbeing. Creating a society which values care is vital to meet the needs of ageing population, while workplaces which are hostile to families have serious implications for the economy in terms of workforce participation and productivity.

Addressing these issues is a big challenge and this paper has big, broad reaching recommendations. This is not a time for tinkering at the edges of the problem. To strike the balance we need structural changes in the workplace to support gender and carer equality. We need cultural change.

The most basic family value is valuing families. Helping families make time to be a family by sharing work and care is not only in the best interests of parents, it's in the best interests of children. Both men and women need access to family-friendly employment provisions like flexible working hours, parental leave and carer's leave. We need to create a culture of shared work and valued care.

This report sets out a framework for reform which faces up to the realities of modern Australian family life. This framework:

  • recognises that family and carer responsibilities changes across the life cycle;
  • promotes equality by making sharing work and care a real option for Australian families; and
  • creates a legal and social environment that values care and protects the rights of workers with family and carer responsibilities.

Our economic good health gives us a unique opportunity to address our social health by addressing the unfair distribution of paid work and family and carer responsibilities identified by HREOC's 2005 Discussion Paper Striking the Balance: Women, men, work and family.

This final paper is the springboard for meeting this challenge. By setting out a framework for future reform, this paper carries the hopes of many people. I would like to thank the men and women who came to our community consultations and spoke, honestly and openly, about the personal cost of time pressures, and of their desire to spend more time with kids, families, and friends. Thank you also to everyone who wrote with their stories, ideas, and suggestions for change.

Finally, I would like to thank Ms Pru Goward. Every project has a visionary, a person who has an idea, gives it legs, and most importantly, makes it run. The women, men, work and family project's visionary is Pru Goward who, in her role as Sex Discrimination Commissioner and with the excellent support of HREOC's Sex and Age Discrimination Unit, not only got this project off the ground but got Australia talking.

This paper continues this crucial conversation about how to strike the balance between paid work and family responsibilities. But this paper is not simply a talking point; it's a template for action. In 2007, it's about time.

The Hon John von Doussa QC
Acting Sex Discrimination Commissioner and
Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination

29 January, 2008