Women’s History month – women in the paid workforce – some thoughts

At the conclusion of Women’s History Month I have been thinking about personal history and in particular women’s history month which led me to reflect on how much has changed in the world of women’s public work. Of course the simple fact is that whether our female ancestors were in paid employment or not, they were invariably significant contributors to their family’s economic activity. They made clothes, sold eggs, grew fruit, milked cows, were railway gatekeepers etc etc: inevitably a vital part of what made our ancestral families effective, not to mention their contributions to community organisations of all sorts.

Over the past few decades there have been so many changes which have made it “easier” for women in the paid workforce, without denying there is still plenty of opportunity for improvement.

My reflections brought up a few things which have improved over the past forty years or so:

  1. Most women were required, not just expected, to resign from work as soon as they married.
  2. My mother-in-law worked for 25 years in Papua New Guinea as a teacher. Throughout that time she remained a casual employee with no leave or superannuation benefits –entirely due to the fact that she was married.
  3. When I was engaged and not far off finishing uni, I applied for a job with a large multi-national company. During the interview, and once they knew I was getting married, I was told that I couldn’t have the job “because married women get, ah, pregnant or…”… something I hadn’t realised was peculiar to those who married.
  4. There was no maternity leave even after married women continued to work. If you were pregnant, you either took leave without pay (if the employer was accommodating) or resigned your position.
  5. If your children were sick, you were reluctant to admit this for fear of a negative impact on your job and had to find strategies to look after your children. You could not use your own leave, or take carer’s leave, to cover days off to mind sick children even though you took as few as possible personal sick days “just in case”. If you were lucky and working after the advent of flexitime you could stockpile some hours to cover you when your children were sick.
  6. Workplaces were predominantly male and offices were generally less welcoming and more structured.
  7. Child-care centres were few and far between.
  8. Superannuation entitlements for women employees had significantly different benefits than those for men even those contributions were the same.
  9. Salaries for women weren’t the same as those for men, except in some industries.

These are significant changes to many women’s day-to-day working conditions over a very short period of time, barely even one generation, and I’m sure others would come up with different points. Not everyone will agree that it is a good thing for women with children to be in the paid workforce but for those who choose to do so, their work-family balance is a little easier to maintain. From my own point of view I’m pleased that my daughters have more flexibility and opportunity than was possible only a few decades ago.