Women in the workforce: Australia’s great productivity booster

Susan Ferrier, National Managing Partner, People, Performance Culture
Susan Ferrier, National Managing Partner, People, Performance & Culture

The Federal Government’s 2015 Intergenerational Report predicted that women have the power to boost Australia’s productivity by $25 billion if just another 4 percent of women worked or returned to work after having children.  An impressive number and one that shows the importance of women in Australian business.

The report acknowledges that greater participation by women has a lot to do with “the interaction of the tax and transfer systems, availability of childcare, and policies on parental leave”. I agree with them and KPMG certainly has some strong recommendations.

Part of my role at KPMG involves helping change workplace attitudes to parental leave. In particular how we transition and support our women back into the workplace and assist them with a flexible, family friendly workplace and also how to help men take parental leave and share the responsibility of raising children.

Flexible working is one way of making transition back into work easier and a way of helping parents manage their responsibilities at work and home. One of our women partners, Vicky Hickey, is a strong advocate for flexible working. For her, it is all about communication and boundaries. This is her story.

“One of the benefits about working flexibly is I have a Wednesday off. So, I actually have two Fridays a week. But really the greatest benefit is that Wednesday is about the kids and me. When I wake up on a Wednesday morning, the kids come running down the hallway saying, “Mum, Mum, Mum! You’re not going to work”. And sometimes I don’t realise who’s more excited – is it me, or is it the kids?

“Working flexibly changes things. One is I get paid less than if I worked full time. But I get the opportunity to balance between having a rewarding career and time with my kids. One of the biggest challenges I faced in setting up my flex arrangement was determining what working flexibly would look like and then feeling confident in the decision. Once you’ve got that confidence then you can set up the boundaries about how you’re going to operate and how you’re going to communicate with the people you work with.”

Vicky acknowledges that the decision to work flexibly was not an easy one. It can take great courage to have this discussion with your manager and your peers and even greater courage to stick to your flexible schedule. Digital technology can mean we are ‘always on’ and consequently ‘always available’ so working flexibly requires you to negotiate with your boss, your peers and your team when you will be available and how. There is no perfect answer and everyone does it differently and it’s important for working families to work out what works best for them.

Working flexibly doesn’t always come naturally and returning from parental leave can be a difficult transition. At KPMG we’ve realised that to make it really work for parents they need dedicated support which is why we have a specialist ‘case worker’, and a support network called AMUMni which was set up by Vicky and her colleague Kim Lawry in Sydney and Elyse Wherry in Melbourne. It has been a great success and gives working parents a safe place to talk about their concerns, to help them realise they are not alone. It gives support for parents to find their own solution, to discuss and try what is possible and what is just not going to work.

Today is International Women’s Day, a celebration of the economic, cultural and political achievement of women. As you contemplate today, I urge you to take time to celebrate the mostly unnamed but remarkable women who work and have children and by doing so are an integral part of Australia’s current and future prosperity.

Read more diversity stories in our Diversity & Inclusion Report

VIcky Hicky and childrenFeature Image: Vicky Hickey and her boys
© Rob Henderson

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