THE NEW South Wales legal profession is poised to become actively engaged in a public debate on the issue of work and family balance.
As Lawyers Weekly hit desks this week, the New South Wales Women Lawyers Association (WLA NSW) was entering submissions on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Family & Human Services’ Parliamentary Inquiry into balancing work and family.
As well, the WLA NSW announced last week that it also aims to be involved in a new project by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, set to examine work and family balance. The project, entitled Striking the Balance: Women, Men, Work and Family, will be conducted by federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward.
According to WLA NSW policy officer Pauline Wright, this issue usually focuses on the ‘choice’ women of child-bearing age have made not to have children. “It seems to me, speaking to my numerous childless friends, that it is not women who are choosing to go childless. Rather, it is the men they live with who don’t want children until much later, by which time the women are beyond fertile age. It’s this ‘extended adolescence’ many men seem to be having, going well into their thirties, that is affecting the birthrate.”
In the legal workplace, there has been clear progress, the WLA NSW said. But inequity between the sexes who make their living in this profession, which is traditionally male dominated, still exists. “The number of bright young women graduating from law schools is greater than ever, yet the gender gap in pay remains,” it said.
The WLA NSW urged male legal professionals to no longer see taking up flexible work arrangements as less ambitious, slack or soft. “How could anyone be accused of being less ambitious when they are juggling household and caring responsibilities with paid work?”
A more nationally consistent approach to entitlements such as parental leave and child care is needed, the WLA NSW said. “Employment laws, employment practices, and provisions under the Sex Discrimination Act must be reviewed and amended.”
WLA NSW’s involvement and interest in the “complex and embroiling” public debate, is not about women blaming men or men blaming women, it said in a statement, but is based on a realisation that “the stakes are high”.
“The national fertility rate is below replacement level on one front, and the pressures of supporting an ageing population propel another front. Frustrations and emotions for both sexes are at an all time high,” it said.
The NSW Law Society is also about to embark on its own report for employers about work-life balance. To be officially launched on April 12, the Law Society’s report looks at different workplace practices which big firms are utilising to help create a culture and environment that attracts and retains new talent.
Chairman of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family & Human Services, Bronwyn Bishop, said one of the reasons for the declining fertility rate is that many Australian parents face financial and other family and social difficulties when they attempt to return to the paid workforce. Forty-three per cent of women with two or more children are in the workforce, which is low compared to Sweden at 82 per cent and 62 per cent in the UK. Bishop suggested that this illustrates a need for better family-friendly policies and workplace arrangements.