Laila Harre - Speech To Women Business Leaders

Published: Thu 17 Feb 2000 09:56 AM
Office of the Hon Laila Harré
Minister of Women's Affairs
Minister of Youth Affairs
Associate Minister of Commerce
Associate Minister of Labour
Firstly I would like to congratulate all of you who have come this far. Succeeding in the business world at any time is difficult, but succeeding as a woman is even more of a challenge. I have no doubt that many of you have to balance the extremely demanding roles of business and family responsibilities. Your success as superwomen is rightly acknowledged today.
Whether we work for ourselves, employ others or are ourselves employed, there is much that binds us as women who seek to make sense of our responsibilities as both worker and mother. I am sure that applies to many of you who face ongoing conflict between these two roles. I certainly do. But I take the view that it is time society did its bit to meet women’s needs. Women have without doubt done our bit to meet the needs of our society. The situation of working mothers is one of the most important issues that we face today. This government will be taking that head on as we develop a range of initiatives - from support to legislation - to make sure the way we work meets our social needs, rather that the other way round.
Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that I think women who choose to stay at home are of less value - I don’t. If anything their role is undervalued. But the reality is that mothers make up a significant percentage of the workforce and that our numbers are growing every year. The fact that we are here to stay has not been adequately addressed, to put it mildly, and it’s time we did something positive about it.
We need to construct institutions and that take into account the realities of the new millennium. The concept of working mothers is not a difficult reality to grasp. Women work, we do so in our tens of thousands. In fact it’s predicted that in a few years we will outnumber men in paid work. So anybody out there who has a problem needs to get over it.
Women working outside of the domestic scene are hardly a new concept. For millions of years mothers have combined our productive lives with reproduction. This combination of work and motherhood has always entailed trade-offs, but the crucial difference for modern mothers is the compartmentalisation of our productive and reproductive lives.
It’s really only since the Industrial Revolution that the spilt between the public and private, between the domestic and civil society really got under way. People, and they were initially the poorest, flowed into factories and commercial enterprises in a virtual tidal wave. Initially these included not only men, but also women and even children. Even in these early days of industrialisation there were no real gender distinctions among those who worked. But all that changed, and women were increasingly restricted to the domestic, to picking up the pieces and providing a nurturing environment for the bloke when he arrived back from a hard day slaving over a hot printing press or cotton jinny.
We know that all sorts of taboos; religious, cultural, social and legal restrictions grew from that public/private division. It became part of a moral code. Western society fostered the idea that women were somehow hot wired - genetically programmed to bend over a hot stove and naturally inclined to derive immense satisfaction, even joie de vivre, from ironing.
While women were being roped to the kitchen sink, blokes were pushing the doctrines of free trade and social and political liberalism. Of course this personal and commercial freedom was meant to be restricted; idiots, women and the working class, needn’t apply. Individual rights and freedoms were for some not others, and if you happened to an “other” well too bad.
Of course things have changed, in many ways dramatically and for the better, at least for those of us living in the first world. The kinds of freedoms and opportunities we now enjoy are hugely different to what was available to our mothers, let alone our grandmothers.
We’ve got a lot to thank those women for, and there have been legions of them whose struggles secured much of what we take for granted today. It’s important to remember that all the changes we as women have benefited from have come about through bitter and painful experience. Changes in women’s lives, especially in relation to work outside the home, have nearly always involved some kind of agitation.
The idea that we are naturally inclined to be more intimate with an iron or a baby’s nappy is the kind of thing that has been erroneously put about for centuries. But if you can convince enough people that something is natural, change becomes not only impossible, it becomes downright obscene.
Issues to do with work, who does it, and how it is organised are not eternal verities but issues of power and politics. What our rights are and how we pursue them have exercised the minds and bodies of thousands of our forebears in countless ways, from daily struggles through to revolutionary action - women literally on the barricades.
Thanks to this action change has come, and for many women it was the war that signalled the sea change in our relation to work and employment. Sheer necessity demanded that we fill the roles previously occupied by men, even though when the war ended we were forced to resume our domestic lives. On the surface it may have looked like women’s lives resumed normal transmission, but by this time fundamental structural changes were taking place.
Why did this come about? As that great lover of women, Bill Clinton, was wont to say, ‘It was the economy stupid’. More women were moving into paid employment, not only because they wanted more to move beyond the limits of the quarter acre. It was also because for the economy to expand on a global scale more and more people had to be drawn into its orbit - continuous expansion being the motor that drives modern development. Women weren’t just lining up to join the workforce because one income was becoming less and less able to cover the rising cost of living. The very driving force of our economic system demanded the incorporation of more and more citizens in the workforce to provide a ready market for the increase in consumer products.
The increasing number of women moving into the workforce didn’t put an end to many of the old shibboleths regarding women and work. Not only were the old chestnuts difficult to put to bed, but the system, geared as it was to a single income regime, refused to take into account the difficulties women experienced surrounding the interface of production and reproduction.
The 1960s and 70s brought about an explosion of women entering the workforce and with it came the emergence of a second feminist wave. Betty Friedan’s 1962 classic The Feminine Mystique may have exposed one of the central tenets of Western Society; that women should find fulfilment as wives and mothers. It also paved the way for a new generation that saw giving up everything to stay at home, raise kids and keep house as passé. But The Feminine Mystique didn’t tell the full story - babies kept being born and despite sweeping social and sexual changes fathers weren’t queuing for the job of primary care giver. Not only were fathers not only not queuing up to look after the kids and wallow in the joys of washing, ironing and cleaning, working mothers came under increasing fire for supposedly sacrificing the wellbeing of their children.
Instead of being praised for combining two jobs, and providing the resources to do them well, we were - and often we still are - attacked and criticised. Somehow we were at fault for wanting to expand our horizons and play the part demanded of us by the economic system. There’s probably a medical term to describe this, but hypocritical will do for now.
As a result many of us experience deep and profoundly unsettling guilt about whether or not we should be attempting to be both mothers and workers. Any number of op-ed exposés detailing the dire consequences that befall the children whose mothers also hold down jobs.
Well the good news is that no reputable study has ever demonstrated that children will grow horns, fall prey to weird cults, become TV addicts or befall any of the myriad of sins working mothers are frequently blamed for. Decades of research have shown that the mere fact a woman works predicts very little about children’s well being. In many cases, a job will have far less significance in a child’s life than, say, a family move, marital problems, or a parent suffering from depression. Conversely, a mother’s job can stabilise a child’s life and a steady income can dispel the chaos brought on by poverty. Millions of working-class women have raised successful and well-adjusted children over the years. Everyone knows that - when they stop to think about it.
Yet it’s not surprising that we often feel guilty or anxious about combining our roles. But if we stop to think about it, and I’m sure we all have from time to time, most of these feelings stem from the unwillingness and reluctance of organisations to take on board the fact that working mothers are here to stay. The fact is that it’s the organisations that are the problem. If nothing else, history clearly shows us that change is inevitable, but what kind of change takes place, who determines it and who it benefits is never determined in advance.
Like every other feature of social existence the nature of work, who performs it and how it is performed is constantly evolving. But the patterns and processes of change are not just random or chaotic. To a large extent they are determined and controlled by those who have traditionally pulled the levers. I have to say that for the most part work is organised to suit a certain type of arrangement and that arrangement just happens to penalise women, in as much as they have to balance both roles more than men. It’s a fair bet that some of us in this room have experienced some kind of discrimination, from being passed over for promotion because we’ve been pregnant or having to take time out to look after sick children or any number of silly, pointless reasons.
The central problem is not that women have changed, it is that society’s attitudes and structures have not. The big challenge ahead is to make the modern workplace family-friendly. As the British writer Jayne Buxton, author of Ending the Mother War wrote: “Too few women are pushing or have been pushing for that kind of change”. This has come about because women no longer feel comfortable treating issues such as childcare as political. National’s code of social responsibility was just one of the more recent attempts to turn issues such as having children into a purely personal problem, rather than accepting the fact that along with the personal aspect there’s a wider social responsibility. It’s high time that the organisation of the modern industrial system caught up with the reality of most people’s lives - the split between the two environments of work and home is an artificial one, and one that needs to be addressed not tomorrow but yesterday.
There are some bright spots on the horizon. A few companies in New Zealand have introduced enlightened policies. They’ve even found that it makes economic sense to introduce family friendly policies. These address issues of absenteeism, lower productivity and higher staff turnover. Shell, for example found approximate savings of $50,000 for every $16,000 they spent on parental leave, with an annual saving of over $200,000. Not bad for something the previous government said employers couldn’t afford.
Talking about paid parental leave, the bill that I introduced to the House last year and got as far as the select committee stage will be revisited again this year. Both the Alliance and Labour are committed to paid parental leave as a first in what I hope is the beginning of family friendly initiatives.
Those who believe that the government has no role in such matters just aren’t living in the real world. Experience by hard nose organisations has proved the value of paid parental leave not only to the economy but also to the quality of people’s lives. Work shouldn’t be an obstacle or a barrier to women being able to fulfil other needs. Work should and must be reorganised to take account of the fact that it is a human function, and collectively we are in control of it.

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