Everybody's workplace and working life is undergoing profound change. Technology is allowing greater flexibility – but also extending the working day beyond the traditional 9-5 confines. Communications allows us to connect where and when we want. Employers, keen to attract the top talent, are increasingly supportive of flexible work practices and new job constructs.
For working women in particular, this flexibility has laid the foundations for fresh career paths where work and home life, and particularly caring responsibilities, can be more successfully intertwined.
As a result, while the workplace gender gap persists, there are more women in the workforce than ever before.
Women make up just over 46 per cent of Australia's workforce. For these women, and many men, the theme for 2017's International Women's Day - "be bold for change" - resonates loud and clear.
A bold change urgently needed is for the gender pay gap to narrow. The Workplace Gender Equity Agency has identified a 17.3 per cent gender pay gap between men and women. The clear consequence is that women must work longer hours to match men's salary or superannuation balances, especially important as on average women live longer than men.
Working longer hours however has a cost. The Journal of Social Science and Medicine recently published a study noting that there was a working threshold of 39 hours a week beyond which mental health declines.
For working parents the situation is particularly acute as the study noted that unpaid caring roles outside of work exacerbate the problem.
This needs to be considered in concert with the fact that the participation rate of working parents is rising – particularly working mothers. The Australian Institute of Family Studies notes a significant rise in working mothers over the last 30 years.
Census data reveals that 65 per cent of mothers with children aged under 18 are in the workforce. Both parents work full time in more than one in five families, which rises to around a third when the children are aged 12-17.
Successfully melding family and work lives requires a fair degree of workplace flexibility – but as Jane Counsel, principal diversity consultant at Executive Central Group, notes, this isn't always readily available. Some large organisations, led by Telstra and the big banks are moving to a "flex first" policy where all roles are in theory flexible, but she notes that fewer than 50 per cent of Australian organisations in total have flexible workplace programmes.
"There is still a lot of work to be done," she says, particularly to support men who also want access to flexible working arrangements in order to participate more fully in family life. She said that at present twice as many men as women were likely to have requests to work flexibly turned down.
"We need to get the playing field right and review the language of the policies… and organisations need to invest in leaders so that they can lead flexible teams."
So if workplace flexibility is still as nascent as Counsel suggests, what happens when the phone call comes through from school that your daughter has broken her arm in the playground; or your son becomes listless with a high fever? Counsel says that generally it is still the mother that interrupts work to care for the child.
But there is no warning about when a child may fall ill or be injured. It's not something that can be scheduled. And the bills keep coming, topped up with additional costs incurred for medical treatments, medications or physio.
While it's a particularly acute challenge for single parents, working couples also experience what Lucy Hickman candidly describes as "logistical nightmares."
The mother of three young daughters aged six, four and one, Hickman is a Wellington, NZ-based chartered accountant and Asia Pacific finance manager for e-learning business, Kineo. She works 24 hour a week; three days in the office and one day from home. Her husband meanwhile works full time.
When one of the girls is ill their care is co-ordinated – and generally provided – by Hickman herself. It's a major challenge and also throws into sharp relief any gap between what an employer says about its family friendly policies and the reality.
Hickman says that unless companies "live and breathe" their family friendly policies working parents come under enormous pressure.
Even the family friendliest careers can be challenged when real life takes hold. Sally Richardson is a self-employed rehabilitation consultant and mother to three school-aged children aged 11, 9 and 7. Her husband is a high school teacher and they share the care of their children, including when they are sick.
The Albury-Wodonga based couple have chosen to forego management or leadership roles in order to be able to focus on the family, and while Richardson works mainly from home, she does have appointments outside the home with clients and doctors. When a child is sick Richardson and her husband juggle the care and for the last two years he has exhausted his carer's leave looking after the children.
Since Richardson is self-employed she has no employer provide carer's leave to fall back on. "I can work from home with a sick child – but it's really challenging when I have appointments," she says from her home where she was confined with her youngest child who was sick that day – just a day after getting the eldest back to school after two days' illness at the start of the week.
She acknowledges that sometimes "I could just cry," while financially; "You take a hit some days."
A child's illness or injury can leave the entire family financially vulnerable at a time when there are already high levels of stress taking their toll.
Working parents insurance is a new solution that has been designed as a safety net to protect families when a child falls sick or is injured. It's available for mothers and fathers (including step- or adoptive parents) – but because of the gender pay gap, and the fact that it is often the mother that takes on primary care responsibilities, it is likely to prove particularly important for working mothers
(The Australian Bureau of Statistics notes that 30 per cent of fathers use flexible work arrangements to care for children under 12 compared to 16 per cent 20 years ago. But mothers still perform most childcare and often step into the breach when the child falls ill or is injured.)
Unaffected by any carer's leave provided by an employer, working parents' insurance, provides a daily lump sum benefit of up to $150 over a period of up to ten days per year. Paid when a parent can't work because a child is sick or suffers an injury, it provides peace of mind and an important financial support at a time when bills can quickly rise to pay for doctor's visits or medicines.
The cover triggers after a child is absent from school for more than three consecutive workdays due to accidental injury, or more than five consecutive work days due to illness.
It's an investment in peace of mind and the security of your family.
To learn more about working parents insurance and how it can help your family call 1800 805 191, visit aon.com.au/workingparent or email firstname.lastname@example.org.