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Julie and Julia:

As the Opposition moves to neutralise gender issues, the Prime Minister announces laws to improve workplace flexibility for parents.
By Bonita Mersiades
Date: February 11 2013
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There was an interesting juxtaposition of political events yesterday.

The Coalition signalled that they have no intention of fighting Prime Minister Julia Gillard on the basis of gender issues and, in particular, her status as a 50+ unmarried woman without children. Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Julie Bishop, who is also an unmarried career woman in her 50s without children, neutralised the issue by talking of her own, very similar status.

Ms Bishop followed up the exclusive interview in News Limited tabloids with a series of interviews on broadcast media in which she also spoke strongly against the claims of the Prime Minister regarding the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott’s alleged ‘misogyny’.

Referring to Abbott’s childcare centre manager wife, Margie, three “intelligent and gorgeous daughters”, his female Chief of Staff, herself and his strong record of championing women's issues, Ms Bishop said that calling Abbott a misogynist was just “wrong”.

Ms Bishop also said that it was not possible for women ‘to have it all’.

"I'm in the Anne-Marie Slaughter school - women can't have it all," Ms Bishop said. "They can have plenty of choices, but at the end of the day, they choose something which means they can't have something else." Ms Slaughter is a former high-flying, senior executive in the US State Department who resigned because she said to be a successful career woman and a good mother you had to be "superhuman, rich or self-employed".

While there are plenty of examples of women who have appeared to juggle a successful career and motherhood, there are also plenty who haven’t; or who make the decision to give their time to one in preference over the other. Former Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, is one recent high profile example of a woman who - temporarily at least - has exercised a choice in favour of parenthood over career. When she resigned suddenly two weeks ago, she made it clear it was because she wanted to devote more time to her 7 year old daughter.

One key issue which impinges on women's capacity to at least attempt to 'have it all' - and men also - is the one in which the Prime Minister yesterday announced changes: workplace flexibility. Ms Gillard said that parents returning to work after having a child should have the right to request flexible and part-time work, and that the Government would introduce laws to support that policy aim. The Government also wants protections in place if rosters are changed at the last minute.

Lack of workplace flexibility was an important issue identified by Motherpedia readers last year which showed that many women believed asking for more flexible working conditions would have negative consequences on their employment. The Motherpedia survey of 1,000 mums also showed that 21% of women believed that childless women workers are three times less tolerant of childcare and parenting issues than a male co-worker. 

Ms Gillard said that, under the Fair Work Act, workers had the existing right to ask for flexible hours but now "their employer will have to respond to that (request)". The Prime Minister said it would apply to both mothers and fathers, who returned to work after caring for their children, to allow a better transition back to the workforce, she said.

But Ms Gillard's proposal attracted criticism from both the Opposition and the Greens.

Opposition workplace relations spokesman Eric Abetz said any change to workplace relations laws needed proper consideration and the Opposition would approach it with an open mind.

"There is no doubt that the Labor Party are doing favours for the trade union movement, trying to rush through as many things as they can in the anticipation... of a loss of government," Senator Abetz told AAP on Sunday.

"We will see what the detail is but if Labor are now adopting and acknowledging the need for flexibility, well we welcome that."

Senator Abetz said Ms Gillard had introduced a bit of class warfare in her comments about changes relating to late roster changes.

"Once again it's the divisive and constructive mantra of the boss against the workers, rather than seeing employers and employees being involved in a joint enterprise."

Australian Greens workplace relations spokesman Adam Bandt said the Government shouldn't assume his party would back the planned changes.

"All that Labor is proposing is to put into law what people have already got - namely the ability to ask their employer for more flexible working arrangements, but if the boss says ‘no’ there is nowhere to go," he said.

Mr Bandt said if Labor was serious about giving people a better work/life balance it would support a Greens bill to give people an enforceable right to flexible working arrangements, such as exists in the UK and Germany.

"The Government should not assume that they have got the Greens' support for this blatant piece of window-dressing when parents and carers around the country are crying out for better work/life balance," Mr Bandt said.

Additional reporting from AAP.

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