Women at war

Mothers spent years fighting for their rights in the workplace but are now experiencing a backlash from those without children, who say they have had enough.

When Nell Jackson once tried to book time off during the school holidays to attend her sister's 21st birthday party in the US, there was uproar in the medical practice she managed. "As the only woman in the surgery without children, I always had to wait till last to book my holidays as the women with children had priority," she says.

"Obviously, they all wanted to take the school holidays off but the one time I wanted time off then, for a very special occasion, everyone made a fuss.

"For women without children, life in the workplace can be difficult. Those with children are often leaving work early to pick up from school or coming in late because of the children, and you're the one person staying behind, working, when everyone else is going home."

In a society where so many have for so long campaigned for equal rights for working mothers, it's unusual to hear them accused of receiving more than their fair share of privileges.

But Jackson, 34, isn't alone. She's part of a growing movement of "child-free" women who are speaking up for their own rights, which they feel have been sacrificed to working mums. War has once more been declared in the workplace and, rather than a war between the sexes, this time it's women only.

"I've certainly seen that tension in the workplace," says Liz Eckermann, associate head, school of History, Heritage and Society at Melbourne's Deakin University.

"There's resentment on a number of levels, including about taxpayers' funds being diverted to women with children. The research certainly points in the direction of those tensions, too."

For while many working mothers are still pushing for a better deal, they're now being faced by a rising tide of opposition from sectors of their own gender. Internationally, there are now a slew of books, with titles such as Will You Be Mother? Women Who Choose to Say No; The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless; The Childless Revolution; and Families of Two to gird the loins, while major movements fight on behalf of the child-free at work, and to overhaul tax systems they believe have been unjustly weighted in favour of parents.

In Australia, the child-free movement is gaining momentum, campaigning against "breeder benefits" and publishing a book, Child-Free Zone, about the opinions and experiences of more than 80 childless people.

There's also an online discussion group where people without kids can network and share their thoughts, and a huge amount of research is being undertaken by academics and policy advisers about the attitudes of the child-free to parents.

Susan Moore, with husband David, is the convenor of and says more focus deserves to be on people without children as so many Australian women are now choosing not to have children, are childless by circumstance, or are giving birth much later in life.

Instead, Moore says, discrimination against the child-free continues apace. High-profile attitudinal examples such as the deputy Labor leader, now Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, being castigated by Liberal senator Bill Heffernan for being "deliberately barren", and thus unable to understand voters: remarks for which he later apologised.

"Another famous example is the people who claim that Condoleezza Rice should not be US Secretary of State as she can't possibly understand what it is like to lose a child." Moore says.

"It appears we childless people are heartless and have no compassion at all. I'd begun to think it was more acceptable now not to have children but today, with the new baby boom, and discrimination in the workplace against the child-free, there seems to be more tension in the workplace than ever."

Moore says for working mothers, it's treated as acceptable to leave work early or come in late or pick the best holiday times, while for those without children it can be impossible to take some time off even if they're caring for elderly relatives or have difficulties at home. "It's like if you don't have a family, you don't have a life," she says.

It's often the same deal in the professions. Child-free Victorian barrister Susan Borg recently took up the baton for her childless sisters, saying they suffer in silence in the face of special treatment for their child-bearing colleagues. As well as having to work longer hours, taking holidays at more anti-social times, being considered fair game for taking work calls at 9pm and facing a greater risk of a remote posting, she argues in Lawyers Weekly, there's also the issue of mothers bringing kids to the office.

"The result of my unofficial survey was the general irritation expressed by 'childless sisters in the law' who were trying to be productive at work whilst listening to the squawking noise of offspring belonging to people with children," Borg says. "When asked if they pleaded for quiet, I was met with the response 'are you kidding?' Actually, I was kidding as I had encountered the same dilemma and kept my mouth shut for fear of being called a 'child hater' and out of touch with my inner earth-mother."

It all comes down, in the end, to society's attitude to children. Eckermann is working on a book - Quality of Life For Women - which examines different countries' views of children, including from Laos where they're treated as communal treasures to be shared by everyone, to western societies with a much more individualistic view.

Taking the latter stance, Canberra policy analyst Tom Nankivell holds that parenthood is a private lifestyle choice, which shouldn't then have priority over any other preference. He says that government or workplace legislation therefore shouldn't be supporting women who choose to have kids, over those who don't, with benefits such as paid maternity leave, subsidised child-care provision, family tax breaks, baby bonuses and more flexible working arrangements.

"I can't find any rational reason for people to have to subsidise others who choose to bring children into the world," he says. "If there were some kind of shortage, maybe, but I can't see any need at all for more people."

In his opinion, the hordes of skilled migrants wanting to enter Australia represent a far more cost-effective future workforce than educating and training local children and, in these days of compulsory super, it's not even that certain they're going to support us all in our old age. Instead, he says, they're merely contributing to global overpopulation and pressure on resources.

But certainly working mothers aren't taking the assault on their rights lying down - even as they play Lego games on the carpet. They're still a long way from parity with their childless sisters, say corporate leaders.

"Working mothers have a very difficult time in the workplace, particularly when there's little flexibility there," says Barbara Baikie, president of Canberra-based Women in Business.

"A lot of women with children face so many hurdles, a lot of them choose to start their own businesses because of the lack of child care or flexibility, so there's a lot of inequity there," she says.

"But there is the potential for tension in the workplace between the two groups of women. It's like the non-smokers arguing that they want some quiet time, the same as the smokers when they go out of the building to smoke."

Possible peace offerings to both sides of this new conflict could take the form of offering a more flexible workplace to everyone - whether mothers, fathers or people without children.

Leslie Cannold, honorary senior lecturer at the Centre for Gender and Medicine at Monash University, discusses the issue of mothers versus non-mothers in her book What, No Baby? and says everyone deserves a fairer go.

"One young woman said to me that she didn't mind mothers having access to part-time work and being excused breakfast meetings, but she wanted that too," Cannold says.

"A real solution is to accept that everyone has things they like to do outside work, and a 24/7 workplace doesn't allow that. Whether it's caring for children, looking after elderly parents or taking part in martial arts. It's about making the workplace less demanding for people."

Women's Electoral Lobby spokeswoman Eva Cox agrees, saying it's our current culture of work competitiveness and overload that's creating, then fuelling, these divisions between women.

"Yes, mothers might leave work early but then they'll generally feel guilty about it and work their butts off later to make up for it," she says. "Instead, we need healthy workplaces, with flexible working hours, where anyone can leave early if they need to."

Nell Jackson ended up quitting her job, she says partly because of the discrimination she suffered as a woman without kids. She set up her own canine masseur business, Healing Paws, and says fairer access to privileges would greatly contribute to easing the friction between women who have children and the child-free.

"There's all this emphasis on creating family friendly workplaces when we should be creating people friendly workplaces," she says.

"We all have responsibilities in life, and no one responsibility is more important all the time than another."

Fairfax Business Media