On International Women’s Day 2017, what does gender equality really mean?

This year on International Women’s Day, I was invited by our Faculty of Science and Engineering to speak at their event to celebrate the day and launch Macquarie University’s Workplace Gender Equity Strategy. I was asked to talk about the kinds of support I’d received that had helped me succeed in my career up to now. It was all the more relevant given that that day just happened to be my first day back at the university after seven months of maternity leave.

In thinking through what to say, I realised that the support I’ve received is actually only half of the equation. The support my husband had received, which in turn has allowed him to support me, is the equally important other half. Indeed, I firmly believe that one of the keys to having been able to maintain my career, and indeed flourish, since finishing my Ph.D. and having our first child eight years ago is the flexibility we’ve both been fortunate enough to have.

I’m blessed with an incredibly supportive husband. When we first had children, my husband – who’s a fellow academic – and I decided that although our careers were very important to both of us, we also wanted to ensure that one of us was caring for our children as much of the time as possible. I feel really fortunate that our university and funding agencies’ willingness to be flexible with parental leave leave and part-time work for both of us has meant these aren’t mutually exclusive goals.

As many professional women who have championed the cause of gender equality in the workplace have said – including Annabelle Crabb, Cheryl Sandberg, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, to name just a few – a critical part of the equation for women continuing their careers while raising families is more equal roles for men and women in caregiver roles. And this often means men taking a step back from work, just as women have traditionally done. Now, after having lived it, I believe 100% that supporting men in doing so is just as important as supporting women.

These policies have collectively had a hugely positive impact on:

  • our children’s lives, by having both parents very present with them,
  • my and my husband’s overall happiness, by decreasing the stress associated with achieving work-life balance…allowing us to be more creative and productive in our work,
  • and, importantly, my professional development, by allowing me to continue to pursue my career while being actively engaged in raising our young children.

Sadly, this is still quite exceptional. When I tell friends and colleagues in other institutions, professions, and countries about how I’ve been able to work over the past 8 years while raising small children – i.e., various levels of part-time, interspersed with multiple bouts of parental leave, with a husband who’s also taken parental leave when I went back to work – they’re often incredulous. This quote from Cheryl Sandberg’s excellent book, Lean In, sums it up all too well for many of us:

Today, despite all the gains we have made, neither men nor women have real choice. Until women have supportive employers and colleagues as well as partners who share family responsibilities, they don’t have real choice. And until men are fully respected for contributing insider the home, they don’t have real choice either. Equal opportunity is not equal unless everyone receives the encouragement that makes seizing those opportunities possible. Only then can both men and women achieve their full potential.

Of course, not everyone wants children, but during the courses of our lives many of us will face some sort of carer’s responsibility, for example, caring for elderly parents, or even ourselves…so this is not just an issue that’s relevant for parents of young children. It will matter to just about everybody at some point.

In the future, I hope that more and more people – and in particular, my own children – will have the kind of support that we’ve had that allows them to both be present with their own family while pursuing their career passion, rather than having to make a choice between the two. Everyone – both institutions and employees alike – will be better off this way.