By Louisa Coppel

Louisa Coppel is passionate about working on the things that make a difference – in people, in organisations and the wider community. She's the strategist of choice for many public sector and not-for-profit organisations which value her ability to cut through internal clutter, challenge cloudy thinking, and draw clarity out of confusion. Her work includes strategic and business planning that delivers results, organisational and program reviews, and communications and marketing strategy.


We need to get more flexible about workplace flexibility

This blog is part of our Expert Commentary series, bringing you insights into some of the unspoken challenges women face in the workplace, from experts with lived experience. The series explores a range of topics and perspectives to highlight the ways inclusive and compassionate leadership practices can benefit everyone.

In my late thirties, I was in an executive role leading a terrific team – single by circumstance and child-free by choice.

I loved the job, but the volume of work was relentless. I was clocking up late hours and long weekends in the office, heading home too tired to do more than eat toast and watch reruns of The West Wing. After three years, I was close to burnout. I was living to work, not working to live.

So I suggested I drop to part-time and work four days a week – to give me some space to live a little.  My idea was to promote a team member to shadow me on my days off, which also provided succession planning. I emphasised I was flexible and would always be available if needed.

My boss said it wouldn't work. The role had to be full-time. I resigned within months.

My successor negotiated a four-day working week, with one day working from home. The boss agreed because the candidate had young children.

Much of our conversation about women in the workplace focuses on barriers women face when they have children. I applaud that and would hate to pit working mothers against not-mums. The motherhood penalty is alive and well and a key contributor to workplace gender inequality. Instead, I'm pointing at shabby HR policies and thoughtless leadership.

Organisations appear to place a higher value on one type of life over another when it comes to flexibility and work-life balance. There is a moral loading towards parenthood as an imperative, particularly for women.

"Have you had your children yet?" a thirty-something friend was asked by her mentor at a large corporate.

Somehow, as we've moved to make workplaces more family-friendly, they've become a tad unfriendly to those without kids.

When we don't fit into the working-family frame, we’re expected to stay late to finish an urgent job. Feeding the cat or an exercise class can wait. Collecting kids from childcare can't.

I've heard of ‘workplace family days’ where workers are encouraged to bring their kids to work, but those without kids must continue to work during the social events. Apparently, fostering inclusion doesn't require their participation.

Journalist 'Jen' tells me of always being on the Christmas/New Year roster when she worked in a Melbourne newsroom. The paper prioritised holiday leave for those with children.  In eight years, Jen never got to spend Christmas with her folks in Sydney. Why is 'parenting down' valued more than 'parenting up'?

Not-mums frequently feel their experiences aren't relevant.

'Nicole', a change manager, says workplaces often conflate femaleness with motherhood.  She recounts being dropped from speaking on a panel about women in the workforce because they wanted to 'focus on women trying to have it all and juggling a family'.

Nicole no longer bothers with International Women's Day events. "The last place I worked had four online events for IWD. The focus of every single speaker was on being a mother in the workplace.  I felt very disengaged,” she says.

Research backs up these experiences.

A PWC study of 25,000 people aged 28 to 40 found 65 per cent felt that women with no children were expected to work longer hours than those with children.

In-depth interviews conducted by the London School of Economics found many managers and professionals who live alone and don't have children felt their organisations prioritised the needs of working parents. Or they assumed they were.  In their minds, 'this is just how things are’.

Yet as the Australian Institute of Family Studies reports, the proportion of working women who will never become parents is growing, through choice or circumstance.  It was 16 per cent in 2016 compared with 9 per cent in 1996 and is even higher for women with a degree or higher qualification.

Work-life balance benefits employees and organisations. Why should we expect the childless to dig in by default? Let's offer the same opportunities to all our people, whatever their age, gender identity and parenting status. The impact on staff retention, engagement and productivity will be profound.



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