“Gender” is often code for “women”, but it’s time to change that.

Last week, the ABS released the latest in its fascinating series of Gender Indicators statistics. They showed the overwhelming dominance of men in the workplace and public life: as chief executives, parliamentarians, judges and even recipients of Order of Australia awards.

But they also told a darker story about men’s experience of the world, with: more than 10 times the rate of imprisonment as women, significantly higher death rates from cancer and heart disease, higher rates of obesity and alcohol consumption and triple the suicide rate.

No wonder boys are born with a lower life expectancy than girls.

The statistics also illustrate the emerging trend of boys and young men engaging with education at high school, vocational and university levels at rates lower than girls and young women. At the same time as we are witnessing great educational advancement for girls, boys are dropping out.

Meanwhile men work more, with higher labour participation rates, longer hours and significantly higher rates of full-time work.

In fact, the ABS data shows that women work part-time at three times the rate of men, with 44% of women working part-time compared to 15% of men.

Working part-time, at least for some of their working life, allows women to balance work and family commitments during the years they have young children; a balance many women are keen to strike. It allows them to have a job and have a life.

It’s a trade-off. High rates of part-time work among women are one of the barriers to women’s progression at work. Part-timers are less likely to be promoted to senior roles and less able to save for retirement.

Working part-time is often described as a “choice” for women, but it’s a choice women are funnelled into by the expectation they’ll be the parent juggling work with primary care; a choice rarely available to men. Let’s face it, child-rearing is still widely seen as women’s work.

Men may desire more balance in their lives but their requests for flexible work are knocked back at higher rates than women.

Driving change in men’s engagement with work is critical to improving women’s experience in the workforce. If we can change the expectation that employees – women or men – need to be chained to the desk for long hours to be considered an ideal worker, we can start to break down barriers that exclude people with caring responsibilities from successful careers.

And perhaps we can open our collective minds to the possibility that men can embrace the work-care juggle too – taking periods of part-time or flexible work to help out at home, enjoy their kids when they’re little and help steer their teenagers into adulthood.

The same ABS Gender Indicators showed that mothers devote more than twice the amount of time looking after children as fathers.

If we could just shift that gulf between part-time work for women and men to something closer to the middle, I wonder what else would change?

The gender biases that lead to women being undervalued and excluded in the workplace also deliver a narrow pathway for men that defines them by their work and earning capacity, to the detriment of their relationships and health.

Change has to start somewhere. Norway arranges its paid parental leave scheme so that a portion is allocated to fathers on a “use it or lose it” basis – if the father doesn’t take the leave the family loses the benefit. This has led to much higher rates of men taking parental leave and greater time spent by fathers with their children. It’s become a bit of a cliche to hark after Scandinavian social policy (often without recognising the very different social context), but they’re on to something here.

Louise McSorley is the acting director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. This article was originally posted on the SMH website on Thursday 3 September.

Work-life balance not just for mothers – Louise McSorley

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