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Choice in our work and personal lives is what we all want

April 17 2017 By Natasha Stott-Despoja AM, Our Watch Chair

Choice in our work and personal lives is what we all want. Last month, federal Labor member for Adelaide Kate Ellis exercised hers.

Pregnant with her second child, she decided she wanted to spend more time with her young son Sam, especially when he was due to start school, instead of running for re-election.

Her decision reflected the reality that Federal Parliament, for men and women, especially those with caring responsibilities, involves considerable travel and time away from home.

Many have zoomed a gender lens over her decision. This is understandable, given women remain primarily responsible for care-giving roles in our society and we need to attract and retain more women in politics.

In society, women do a disproportionate amount of the care work, including looking after children and older parents, as well as the lion’s share of housework. However, for Members of Federal Parliament – male and female – travel and time away are an occupational hazard.

Kate Ellis has served us well. She is the youngest woman to enter the House of Representatives and the youngest person ever appointed a minister. She has run successfully in four elections.

I sense many voters are happy for people to enter politics at differing stages of their lives and not to spend their lives as “career politicians”. Yet, Ellis has been criticised by some for an early departure.

How long do women, or men, need to serve as MPs in order to prove their success? One commentator dared suggest no woman had “cracked” being a successful MP and mother. What? Tell that to former Senators Cheryl Kernot or Rosemary Crowley, or Lower House members Susan Ryan and Kirsten Livermore.

What about current Minister Kelly O’Dwyer or former Attorney-General Nicola Roxon? How about Senator Trish Crossin? Her youngest was breastfeeding when she began her Senate career and was in her final year of school when Crossin finished her term. The list goes on.

Those MPs managed their careers and their families in different ways and, sometimes, juggled more work and expectations than their male counterparts, but the idea that they didn’t “crack” it?

There are plenty of men and women in Federal Parliament who have children who manage the best they can and we should respect their choices.

When male MPs leave for “family reasons”, we don’t argue that a man hasn’t “cracked” being a father and politician. Just as Kate Ellis’ decision does not send the signal that women can’t succeed in politics, or that they can’t be mothers in Parliament.

I had served more than two full Senate terms (six years each) when I left Parliament with a four-month-old and a 3½-year-old. My son was due to start school and I wanted to be in Adelaide. I was proud of how I balanced my political and family life but, like Kate, it was time to rebalance. I recall the day I left Parliament, someone said: “Your children will have a mother now.”

Hey, I was always a mother! And a politician. We are all multifaceted and respecting each other’s choices should be standard.

But this debate is not only about MPs – who have more opportunities and assistance than most – but a society that offers greater choice to all Australians. Surely, our aim should be to modernise all workplaces to enable men and women to exercise choice so they can do something most people say they want to do – which is spend more time with family and loved ones.

There is still a suite of reforms that can be implemented to create more family-friendly and flexible workplaces, including better childcare, more flexible work options, even breastfeeding breaks.

Of course, there is woeful under-representation of women in our nation’s parliaments and women’s parenting roles do play a part in that, not unlike women’s under-representation in other institutions and workplaces.

Our parliaments can be modernised to better suit the work and family needs of their representatives – male and female – but they also need to pass laws and measures that assist everyone to exercise the kind of choice Kate Ellis did.

This piece was originally published in The Advertiser

About Our Watch

Our Watch’s purpose is to raise awareness and engage policy-makers and the Australian community in action to prevent violence against women and their children.

To do this the organisation works to increase gender equality and respect in all aspects of everyday life, such as through schools; workplaces; media; sporting organisations; social marketing, and developing and influencing public policy.

Our Watch’s work derives from the government’s commitment to the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010 – 2022 and gives expression to many of the activities in the Second Action Plan 2013–2016 – Moving Ahead.

Media contact:

Hannah Grant, Media Manager, Our Watch: 0448 844 930 or hannah.grant@ourwatch.org.au

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