So you want your cake……

“You can’t have your cake and eat it too” is a proverb too often associated with mothers and careers. “You choose to have children and now you expect to come back into a high-level flexible role?”

These are real conversations women come up against. It doesn’t matter how much evidence is presented as to the benefits of returning to meaningful work for women, families and the economy. Some people will both consciously and unconsciously fall to the default position “You made a choice to leave, therefore deal with the consequences.” Consequences? Ah yes, a purposeful career is off the cards, as is being able to work to full capability, be renumerated equal to your peers and have the opportunity to progress to more senior roles. Totally fair, isn’t it?

We are being presented with a fictious bartering system “I raise my child therefore I need to hand over any chance of having a real career?”

If we dissect the cake analogy, where we have the cake (why we leave) and the eating of the cake (the re-entry) and start to understand the reality of what’s really happening, we can start to change this outdated mentality.

Let’s start with the cake. The drivers that influence the decision to work full time, part time or not at all post children, is not as simple as “I would love to stay at home with my children” or “I would love to work”, it is complex. Quite often the ‘choice’ is influenced by society expectations, gender stereotypes, male bread winner culture, financial pressure, men earning more than women, cost of childcare, mental/general health, stability, breaking points within families, cultural influences, family values; the list is somewhat endless.

And next to our favourite part, eating the cake! When returning to their careers (which 75% of women want to do) there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able re-enter where they left off. Women are not expecting roles aligned to peers that have stayed in the professional workforce. They just want purposeful roles that utilise their skills. There is an underlying belief that they are somehow less capable and they pose a risk because they are “so far behind”. There is no evidence to back this up. What we do have evidence for is that most career breaks follow the narrative of professional volunteering, start-up businesses and further education.

The current implication to the cake situation is that women will re-enter at lower level positions and will need to work their way back up very slowly or maybe not at all – this is even more amplified if they can’t work full time.

If we zoom out to a macro level and look at what starting again or at a lower level position looks like we see a society where women are financially dependent on their partners, have lower superannuation balances, are at high risk of living in poverty if their relationship breaks down, feel anxious about their future and have low self-worth.

Businesses, on the other hand, lack gender balance in positions of seniority and miss out on talented and educated professionals who want to work. Governments, who invest in education for all genders do not get the return on investment as a signficant percentage of educated women are not being utilised to their full potential. Is this the society we really want to live in? Is this the society we want for our sons and daughters? We need to stop blaming and judging, and start changing the system.

It’s not about the cake. Its not about having it all. It’s about access to opportunities. Shouldn’t raising our children be a good thing, not a trade-off for equality?

Michelle Ayyuce