Why are we hiding our children from our work?
“Parents say they feel they have to to hide the need to spend time with and care for their children because of the need to demonstrate commitment to their work and employer,” says Dr Strazdins.
“What we have seen in our research is that even with family-friendly work practices, the reality is that the family orientates itself and adapts to support family members to work.
"It’s usually a one-way street.”
Dr Strazdins says that regardless of what industry the main income earner is in, family life is still built around supporting that main income earner, often the father, to manage what is often a long working week. The other parent, in most cases the mother (in heterosexual relationships), works less hours to be able to continue care for their children.
In a 2013 report, Dr Shireen Kanji from the University of Birmingham and her colleague examined “the experiences of a group of professional and managerial women who had returned to work after having a child but then subsequently gave up work”.
Dr Kanji says, “for many of these mothers there was little flexibility in timing which made it very difficult to accommodate work and care because full-time professional work requires being seen to do much more than this”.
“For some mothers their experience at work was that they were side-lined into less interesting roles, while others felt excluded from social networks.”
Dr Kanji and her colleague found that women felt they needed to lie about their children, in order to keep up with the cultural norm of keeping work and family separate.
Women explained that when their child was sick, it was an “unwelcome reminder that employees care about their children and by implication not enough about the organisation”, so rather than say they were caring for their child, they claimed they themselves were sick.
Dr Strazdins points out that while there is a big focus in supporting women re-entering the workforce when their children are young, we need to remember families need support beyond those early years.
“We often assume that when children enter school, the time requirements for running a household and looking after children go away and they don’t,” she says.
“At every age, the needs of children are different, but the time is equally important.
“Being available and being flexible is very important for parents.”
What does having children do to our careers?
The Australian Institute of Family Studies published a report this year which outlines the statistical trends in fathers’ employment over recent decades.
The report says that when children are born, a father’s employment hours remain the same, while a mother’s dramatically decreases.
Dr Kanji adds that a low proportion of women work continuously for the first five years following the birth of their first child and that this break from employment has been found to be an important explanatory variable in the motherhood wage gap.
“There is a term call the ‘motherhood penalty’,” explains Dr Strazdins.
“Once women have a child, there’s a king hit to her career and earning capacity.
“Women leave the labour market or cut back their hours, so they lose work experience, or they don’t progress.
“We have found that a father’s work hours are independent of mother’s work hours, in other words, a father’s work hours aren’t impacted on how many hours the mother works, they are fixed.
“All the ‘give’ goes into women’s work patterns.”
Dr Kanji notes in the USA, “some married men are actually rewarded for fatherhood in terms of their wage rates.”
“Fatherhood can enhance men’s status at work,” says Dr Kanji.
“There’s plenty of evidence of women trying to hide their status if they are mothers because being associated with care is seen as being lower status.”
Dr Strazdins explains that in Australia we have a ‘one and a half job’ dynamic.
“There is a ‘real job’ which is a fixed, often long full-time hours, often held by the father,” she says.
“Then there’s half a job which is the person, usually the mother, who manages both the job and the care of the children and household.”