April 12, 2008
The Canberra Times

Why there’s only room for one star career in a family

A friend of mine has just been poached by an international firm to head up a global team in Britain. It’s a super plum job that comes with a seven- figure salary and various globe- trotting perks in addition to excruciatingly long hours to account for various time zones. He hasn’t decided if he’ll take it yet, but with private school fees still ahead, as well as a thumping big mortgage, the lure of such a lucrative package is strong.

Word of ”the offer” has leaked out and there have been plenty of pats on the back, champagne toasts of congratulations, and the odd handshake from colleagues who can barely hide their envy.

But in all the whoopee, no one has thought to congratulate my mate’s partner in his grand success – his wife. No one has given a smidge of consideration to the significant role her own career sacrifice has played in his elevation and career stardom.

Now, I know this couple well. I set up their first meeting, via a blind date. Back then my mate – let’s call him Fred – was but a lowly paid newspaper journalist. The love interest – let’s call her Jane – was a higher paid senior executive, with serious ambitions and an MBA under her belt.

To cut a long love story short, Fred and Jane got married and had two beautiful children. With the second birth Jane decided to ”opt out” of her challenging and stimulating career, to be a stay-at-home mum for a while.

Four years later and ready to return to work, her search for an interesting senior executive role that is two-and-half days a week, and flexible around family needs, drew a blank. Eventually she took a low- paying, part-time junior position with the public service which – by that stage – she felt ”lucky” to score. Being parent-friendly, it enables her to do the pick-up from school, volunteer for tuck-shop/fete committees/after-school activities, as well as run the household. But given that the potential for career development and advancement is zero, Jane calls the job her ”Claytons Career”, the career you have when you no longer have a career.

Nevertheless, when asked if she misses what we dub the ”big girl stuff” – the corner office, the big desk, and the boardroom battles – Jane is philosophical: ”There’s only room for one star career in a family.”

And here’s the rub: I think she’s right. What’s more, there’s a growing body of research that appears to support this.

This week’s release of the report Work-life balance in Australia in the New Millennium: rhetoric versus reality, by Beaton Consulting, adds to a mountain of evidence suggesting professional careers have become all-consuming. And that our work culture is counterintuitive to what workers – both men and women – really need.

The Beaton report is the result of a major survey of 12,000 managers and professionals across Australia. It’s a dense investigation with an alarmingly simple bottom line – people are being pushed too hard, and part-time work is failing to help workers achieve balance.

The survey found the demands of an increasingly competitive global market that functions 24 hours a day are snowballing. So too is the pressure placed on many workers, particularly at middle management levels, to fulfill a number of different roles, given the current state of downsizing and ”organisational anorexia”.

The report cites high rates of ”role overload” in which people say they have too much to do and too little time in which to do it. Not surprisingly, the emotional drain is having a dramatic impact on workers’ ability to be effective and responsive.

Of particular concern is an escalating problem with ”WIF” – that’s when Work Interferes with Family. To compensate, professional workers are reporting a high level of absenteeism, and a low level of company loyalty and commitment. But much worse is the news that so- called WIF is causing an increasing number of young professionals to choose to have smaller families than they’d like, or indeed no family at all.

Just when we’d thought, or hoped, we’d smashed the glass ceiling for working women, it seems we’ve created a whole new 21st century version of it.

Education and training are now fully open to females. Consequently there are more highly qualified young women flooding into professions than young men. But once the family-life phase kicks in, our modern workplace with its demanding culture and inherent inflexibility has created a serious ceiling over women.

The fact that Australia has the second highest participation of part- time workers in the OECD is not because women necessarily want to go part-time. It’s because Australian workplaces make it impossible to do anything else – if the family is to function.

While Jane’s family has reaped the benefits of her decision to remain part-time and not seek a full-time senior role befitting her qualifications, the trade-offs are high. Her career has been set back a good 10 years. Whereas Fred’s career is looking more glamorous than ever.

So will he take up the new job offer, with its big money, long hours, extensive travel, and loads of stress? Probably not. He reckons it’s a matter of putting ”lifestyle and family” first.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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