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Women still can't have it all

Date

Nicolle Flint

The great post-feminist challenge is for men and women to reconcile the myth of having it all with reality.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

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.

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157 comments

  • Neither can (working) men.

    Commenter
    Joetoo
    Location
    Castle Hill
    Date and time
    December 19, 2012, 8:46AM
    • Of course not.

      Women can only "have it all" if men have nothing. Isn't that obvious? That is the whole point of feminism.

      Women can have both children and a career, but it would mean that they would have to keep working while their husband took time off to look after the children, and very few women are willing to do that.

      A stay-at-home-dad is a lazy bludger who treats his wife like a meal ticket. Entitlement to Motherhood statements is exclusively reserved for mothers.

      Commenter
      Greg
      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 11:29AM
    • wow Greg and I though the point of feminism was equality. thanks so much for showing me the error of my ways. Bring back the days when women couldnt get a house load and earnt less then men for doing the same job hey??

      Commenter
      tell em theyre dreaming
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 4:18PM
  • Always someone else's fault. Feminists. Your mother. Men. The Patriarchy. The Illuminati. Purple Monkey Dishwashers. Too many people, especially women, can't be held accountable for their choices and the outcomes of their choices.

    Because this is in the National Times section I suppose either Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard are to blame. Depends on your political orientation which seems to be about 50/50 around here.

    If it was in the Daily Life section they would blame Men and The Patriarchy for forcing everyone to live in a system where people have to exchange labour for payment meaning that a woman has to either work and earn money or not work and not earn money. Such a vicious world is "unfair" to women who want to earn money, climb the corporate ladder but not actually do any work because the socialists in the Women's Studies department at USyd said that the fascists in the evil corporate empire are all corporationy in their corporation buildings.

    If this was in the Life&Style section they would blame Channing Tatum's new sexiest man alive photo shoot with Victoria's Secret Angels for Sex and the City 3.

    But holy smoke you may be onto something. You may actually be right. There may be hope yet because of your third last paragraph.

    Congratulations. You get it. Almost. Much of your choices rely on the partner you choose. Not much point expecting to settle down with the hotshot lawyer or banker and then expect him to take time off work when you're just a freelance writer or work in HR. The person that earns the least and who has the lower career trajectory shoudl take the time off.

    Commenter
    Bender
    Date and time
    December 19, 2012, 8:50AM
    • "The person that earns the least and who has the lower career trajectory shoudl take the time off."

      Not necessarily, there's no 'should' about it. That's up to the people involved to make the call about whose career is more valuable. The people involved just have to make the decision about who is willing and able to put a large gap in their working career. Man or woman, it doesn't matter.

      Having a child that you put time into raising is a big commitment in time. In our current society, this translates into an impact on career progression. Don't like it? Ok. Seek out an employer who doesn't care, or decide not to have a child. Nobody is forced into childbearing in our society, it's a personal choice, one with consequences.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 10:12AM
    • Well said Bender - Nailed it - Like many other "isms" i often find there is a concerted attempt to point the finger when failings or shortcomings become apparent. With regards to the children/career nexus i think society in general has a lot to answer for. Many women i know who want children are scared to leave their jobs because there is a good chance many of them wont get their jobs back, at least not to the level they were when they left. Having said that many women who choose to pursue their careers over having children are labelled barren ball-breakers.. This is not my opinion its just what i hear around the traps... Same can be said for men who "bring home the bread" and are accused of not spending enough time with the kids, or the stay at home dads who are labelled "losers" (House Husbands anyone????) Perhaps major life choices such as having children or pursuing a career should not be viewed through some paradigm or ism, but rather just viewing it as life. For better or for worse decisions are made and sometimes regretted but i find it a bit of a stretch to blame the promises that feminism offered with the pressure of having to make these choices in the first place..

      Commenter
      Dave
      Location
      The Burbs
      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 10:32AM
    • Agree Bender.

      The author's 3rd last paragraph sums up the reality of the situation.

      The recent (albeit minor) drop in female board representation proves the stronger connection 'choice' has in determining career progression over the disingenuous, pathetic excuse of a secret men's club oppressing women or a lack of equal rights.

      Commenter
      TC
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 11:01AM
    • Wow - you're a real charmer...I can't imagine women aren't falling all over themselves for you. Especially with that patronising and condescending language.

      I think I'll try that myself and see how many women fall for me...

      Commenter
      Issues Much?
      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 11:28AM
    • Are you trying to tell us that the Purple Monkey Dishwashers have nothing to answer for? No, I think they should say sorry.

      Commenter
      Tom
      Location
      tom.breen@bigpond.com
      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 12:22PM
    • Thank you for introducing the Purple Monkey Dishwashers into my repertoire of excuses! Late for work - damned monkeys. Forgot to put the garbage out - never! The monkeys snuck it back in when I wasn't looking. Missed a mortgage payment - all the fault of the monkeys. I can see life improving before my eyes...

      Commenter
      andilee
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 12:53PM

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