Illustration: Andrew Dyson.
AN ANNIVERSARY slipped by this year that cannot - and must not - go unremarked. It is a decade since Virginia Haussegger's pivotal ''The sins of our feminist mothers'' was published on this page. Haussegger's opinion piece articulated the anger and frustration of a generation of women left childless as a result of their feminist mothers promoting the myth of ''having it all'': the career, the husband and the babies. The article hit a collective nerve. A book followed recording Haussegger's personal account of feminism, career, relationships, health, and, ultimately biological childlessness.
The messages resonated with women of Haussegger's generation and with mine. Wonder Woman: The Myth of Having It All was the talk of every woman in town.
Thanks to brave women like Haussegger, my generation received the message loud and clear to look after their reproductive health; to not delay pregnancy too long. We have been successfully reprogrammed to hear the biological clock ticking. Unfortunately, this is not a gentle while-away-the-hours-type ticking. Rather, it is a nuclear-bomb-is-about-to-explode-so-PANIC-NOW-style ticking. I sometimes wonder if this has done more harm than good; if, in fact, it would be better not to know.
But we are, of course, the generation who does know. We know our fertility drops markedly after 35 years of age, that when you hit 40 the chances of natural conception and a healthy pregnancy are so slim as to be negligible, that 40-plus Hollywood celebrity mothers use donor eggs. Our GPs gently, but regularly, remind us of these facts.
Yet all the education, awareness and warnings in the world won't guarantee you'll find a partner to father your children. Contemporary records of this dilemma abound: Sushi Das' Deranged Marriage: A Memoir touches upon it, recent articles by The Advertiser's Amber Petty and Rebekah Devlin discuss it, and Martha Wainwright and Lily Allen have sung about it.
The prevailing advice for those hitting the 35-year-old ''single no children'' danger zone is to freeze our eggs. This sounds like a neat future-proofing insurance policy but at this stage unfortunately it is not. The procedure is expensive ($10,000 plus) and the statistical success of eventually achieving pregnancy is far from encouraging. But at least we have an option, limited though it may be, and more information than was accessible to Haussegger and her contemporaries.
But did Haussegger's message about the myth of having it all generate other less positive ramifications? Has her warning, in fact, caused a generation of women to regress in the workplace just when women were gaining a collective foothold? Did educated young women heed her warning so thoroughly their careers have been sacrificed for children?
Debates over women's representation in the workforce, and in the realm of literature and theatre abound. According to reports on the arts and theatre for example, more women than men feel caring for children has affected their artistic careers. Women are working ''flexibly'' or part-time, consciously or unconsciously enabling their partner's career to prosper over their own. Are women and men still incapable of privately negotiating their family commitments to the mutual benefit of both their careers?
It seems so. In an article titled ''Desperate Gillard's War has Failed her Own Gender'', Henry Ergas wrote in The Australian on Monday ''the share of women in full-time employment has increased only 3 percentage points since the 1960s''. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) women represent just 35 per cent of all full-time employees (a figure that was 34 per cent in 2002).
The 2012 Australian Census of Women in Leadership reports women represent just 9.2 per cent of both executives and directors of ASX 500 companies, and that in the ''pipeline'' to senior ASX 500 management positions men hold 2148 line positions and women just 141. WGEA director Helen Conway said ''we've been conducting the census for 10 years and, frankly, you'd expect to see more progress … companies have failed to develop and maintain a strong pipeline of female talent, and you can see this in the negligible growth in female executive management''.
If my generation has embraced babies over the target of the boardroom, this is a predictable outcome. As with the debate in the arts, if women are not half the playing field in the first place then how can they expect half the positions? How can workplace gender imbalances be addressed if women are not in the workplace full-time to address them, when the stark reality is that businesses operate on a full-time work week, especially in the ranks of senior management?
The great post-feminist challenge is for women and men to reconcile the myth of having it all with reality, and this is a private matter, not one for the state. Suffocating business with further regulation and reporting requirements is counterproductive and ultimately pointless if couples are making private decisions that result in workplace gender imbalances. Men and women must reflect on the private choices they make and what this means for women's careers.
In a decade from now I hope women in their 30s won't be facing the same difficult circumstances and choices. I hope women and men can privately negotiate to improve women's full-time presence in the workforce, that reproductive technology may have improved further still, that we can have a more substantive and informed debate about other options such as American-style egg donation and surrogacy, and that the conversation started by Virginia Haussegger in 2002 and continued by others like Das, Petty and Devlin might assist the women who follow next.
A decade on from Haussegger's article women know more, panic more, yet are not presented with more conceivable solutions to our problems of procreation, partnership and profession. We should be able to have it all. But this time it's up to women - and men - to make it happen.
Nicolle Flint is a freelance writer.