Image via Pixabay
That’s the dream isn’t it? Make a million dollars, which used to be considered quite substantial, but now is barely enough to purchase a home in Sydney. Then, stop working to live a life of leisure and creativity, self-worth intact. I mean, if I look at being forced out of the workforce this early, while still having a roof over my head and being able to eat from that perspective, I’m living the dream! Admittedly, I’m completely reliant on my partner financially. I’m resentful and grateful simultaneously. Is this the elusive middle way?
I started working when I was thirteen. I wasn’t legally old enough but hung out at a coffee shop after school and the owner made a sexist remark about washing his dishes. I mentioned he had to pay me and that was my first job interview. I worked consistently ever since until I embarked on motherhood. It’s not like I was unaware of gender inequality and the gender pay gap, the limitations of the gender binary construct aside, but I naively thought that I could overcome it. It’s only in retrospect that I see how deeply ingrained inequality is, particularly in the labour market.
In Australia, the gender pay gap is currently around 14% and is measured using Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, by calculating the difference between the average full-time weekly earnings of men and women. For the last couple of decades, it has been between 15% and 19%, and it can be affected by factors such as occupation, industry and sector; public or private. The two main drivers of the gender pay gap are occupational segregation and the undervaluing of feminised work. In Australia, women tend to congregate in roles that are incorrectly and degradingly considered to be less skilled, like those in the nurturing and care sector, the service industry, the humanities and the arts. For example, industries like education, nursing, aged care and childcare are dominated by women. In 2016, around 97% of childcare workers were women. Their average income was around $600 a week, ironically seeing many of them unable to work full-time and afford their own childcare fees. On the other hand, the stock market value for the sector at the time saw profits of around the $1b mark. Furthermore, even in skilled professions, women still tend to earn less compared to their male counterparts for the same work. Women who pursue successful careers, also tend to lean on other women to support them with domestic services; race and class exacerbating inequality. Additionally, women tend to do more invisible and uncredited labour including emotional labour. We grumble about its exploitation, but instead of valuing it as vital within a paid economy, which we have seen starkly during the current global pandemic, we dismiss it and continue to deny its remuneration.
Throughout high school and university, I had regular part-time work, mostly in food service. I was encouraged to earn an income, take on responsibility and have a strong work ethic. That’s the main reason my parents emigrated to Australia from Malta in the 70s and 80s. I was obligated. A contribution of hard work builds character and attains freedom for myself and others, I was taught. Menial work, a means to an end; education paramount.
So, I studied hard. I did well in high school and got a high score at the end. I got into university but had no direction or guidance about what my desires or strengths were, so I followed my heart. I did an Arts Degree. They were affordable and popular when I studied between 1993 – 1995 and we had HECS (Higher Education Contributions Scheme). I never worried about the cost because I knew I didn’t have to pay anything until I was required to pay it back through the taxation system once I started earning a decent wage over the threshold. I didn’t notice the debt, but I remember the relief when I’d paid it off. The system has gradually become more complex to navigate and Arts degrees themselves more expensive. I’d chosen essay subjects in high school; the easier road apparently. My choices were similar at university and while I didn’t fully participate in university life, I did have a few lightbulb moments.
My Anthropology Professor in first year was the only one that ever gave me a High Distinction. Another Anthropology tutor suggested I stay back after class to listen to Noel Pearson speak. Once in Sociology, a mature age student sat beside me in a lecture and suggested I choose Women’s Studies in second year. She thought I’d enjoy it. I took her advice and she was right. I failed English miserably in first year. I didn’t realise I’d failed until third year, when I was lining up (in person before the internet) to register, hoping to graduate. I had to pick a first year subject to make up the units to get my degree. I chose Government 101. Practical and useful I thought. I still don’t understand the Westminster System. I graduated and John Bell from the Shakespeare Theatre Company spoke at the ceremony. I hired a gown and got photos near the Jacaranda tree. My family came. We were like aliens on a foreign planet. Working class people from the western suburbs, a daughter of migrants, don’t belong in that world. But I got my piece of paper; it was currency. An example of intelligence, commitment and completion. An unattainable symbol of prestige in my family.
My first full-time job was in residential community support. It was the closest I got to feeling that dignity of having finished an Arts Degree at the University of Sydney, majoring in Women’s Studies, Anthropology and Sociology and putting it to good use. Doing my Masters or a Phd wasn’t really an option. I’d already strayed far enough out of my lane and I wasn’t about to push my luck. I certainly couldn’t afford to. I was eager to work and be debt free. I spent three years in a domestic violence refuge, doing important work that was shamefully undervalued. There were three generations of women working side by side and to my knowledge, I was the only one there with a degree. It felt superfluous in comparison to the abundance of wisdom and life experience of my co-workers, but it proved invaluable during the refuge’s transition from a grassroots shelter to a funded and operational service provider. I burnt out fast, three years in, feeling like the nature of the work and the lack of resources didn’t attract the compensation or appreciation it deserved. The older workers had more tenacity than me.
The next six years were an attempt to figure out where I could be productive and valued in the private sector, because as I’d learned, the community sector was potentially harmful to workers; neglected by government, funding bodies and society at large. It was underfunded, underpaid and traumatic work. I have regrets about giving up too soon, but my body and mind’s deterioration gave me little choice at the age of 23. My parents had been recently married and had had me at that age, but I dreamed of doing more with my life, given the opportunity to delay settling down. The private sector, I assumed, would have boundaries, safety nets and a pathway to a ladder to climb. With a degree under my belt and several years of experience doing the gritty work, a fancy office and people in tailored clothes would welcome me with open arms and help mold me into something befitting my intellect and compassion, I thought. I discovered that the opposite was true. To make it in the corporate world, I soon learned I had to be callous and compromise some of my values. Empathy and collaboration wasn’t encouraged, competitiveness and individualism was. I had learned about the structures that demanded my subordination in that world. Evidently unionised menial employment, an Arts degree with a feminist angle and supporting diverse survivors of family violence were useful and empowering eye openers. I did my best but without vocational qualifications and unrelated experience, it was only possible to start at the bottom in a private company. Receptionist, secretarial or mail room and casualised. No perks, bare minimum. I was expected to work my way up and I was motivated at first.
One of my first private sector jobs was in a fashion warehouse of a small-scale designer as the receptionist at head office and the designer’s personal assistant. I cringed at the stored carcasses of fox stoles, I prepared lunch for the staff every day and picked up her son from school. A couple of the men in the office were a bit too aggressive for my liking but I knew my assertiveness wouldn’t be welcome. It was a four-hour return commute each day by car and it proved unsustainable. I felt ungrateful and oversensitive, but I knew toxic when I saw it, so I quit.
Shortly after, I found a job at another corporate company, an engineering firm comprised of five smaller businesses. My “office” was a dark room surrounded by compactus shelving units. I had a huge bowl of lollies on my desk, that I was responsible for keeping full for the staff to nibble on when they came to return files to my in-tray. I bound documents with the coil binder machine and went to the post office to send and retrieve mail. Sometimes I relieved at reception and took calls. I recall supporting and advocating for a co-worker that was being abused and stalked by her parents, my refuge skills resurfacing. A senior staff member raised his voice at me once and I didn’t hold back like before. I shouted back with no inhibition to never speak to me that way again. A female senior staff member made him apologise but it was the beginning of the end. Once, we were having an office celebration. I went out to the balcony for a cigarette and in the meantime, someone had closed the glass sliding door. On my way back in, I walked into it like a budgie flying into a mirror. The office erupted into laughter and quickly refrained to save me embarrassment, but I didn’t feel the humiliation. I realised that even walking into a glass door with full force while everyone snickered at my expense didn’t make me feel any less worthless than I already did working there. I started planning my exit.
I began working in a call center selling insurance products for a conglomerate of financial institutions. It was an opportunity I probably blew to be honest. They let casual staff turn up every day if they were keen. We sat in a large open plan office at rows of desks, behind computers, wearing headsets. Calls dropped in as we cold called existing bank customers, offering them life and accident insurance products with free coverage for three months. We signed them up and gave them details about how to cancel before the billing kicked in. It was easy and I learned to sell quickly. I had a knack for connecting with people in a non-threatening and nurturing way. I didn’t pressure them and if there was no interest, I empowered their decision making and didn’t waste either of our time. I made them feel like they were in control, that they were getting something for nothing if they only remembered to cancel, but if the price suited them, they would wind up with a great product. If there was strong resistance, I wished them a good day and promptly hung up. I got so good at selling they used me to test out phone lines. Once, I spoke to so many customers in one day, the system looped back around to the first person I’d called that morning, then the second and third and so on. It baffled the IT guys, I’d clocked it. So, they promoted me. When I say promoted, I mean the pay and casual status remained the same, but I got to sit at a different desk and process cancellations. There was less volume and more responsibility. I sat in a more private room, away from the entry level plebs, among the second and third-year plebs. With one foot on a possible rung, I had a moment of self-righteous doubt about working for banks and insurance companies. I’d been looking for an out, a return to dignified, ethical work in the care industry and scored a job in a disability support service just as the “promotion” kicked in. It was a huge mistake. I went straight back to that feeling of powerlessness and grief that had sunk me at the refuge and I lasted as long as the probation period before finding something else.
I secured casual employment with future potential at a labour hire company. They advertised the position as temp to perm, as was becoming the trend. The incentive was that if you proved yourself over a twelve-month period, you would then become full-time staff. It was one of the more unusual experiences I had. For instance, only Capricorns were promoted to management – I’m a Gemini, I was already out of the running. I don’t recall ever doing any substantial or relevant work. I took calls from labourers and airport baggage handlers, usually giving them scripted answers about when they could expect to be paid. I sorted timesheets, shuffling them into alphabetical order in a wooden sorter. I remember emptying boxes, retyping something that had already been typed, returning files to shelving, meeting with an angry man who hadn’t been paid. My refuge experience and training dealing with possible aggression and violence saw me draw that short straw. They tried to include me socially, but I had nothing in common with my co-workers. A team building weekend in the Blue Mountains was organised by the company. We had to trek through the bush and work in teams to find a mock plane wreckage. I located the wreckage in a tree but none of my teammates believed me. They told me I was going “bush mad”. I tried to explain that if they followed me a few meters and looked up they’d see it too, but they refused. The other team won. I quit before the Christmas party having lined up another casual role.
I knew the corporate world was not going to ever feel safe or right for my interests or skillset. I had one last attempt at a private vascular clinic. Medical administration felt like care. Another temp to perm role, it also didn’t work out. I contributed high quality work but at the end of the twelve months the manager cut my shifts instead of making me permanent, so I quit. It was the first time I was truly unemployed with nothing to go to. I spent November to February of 2004/2005 unemployed and on Newstart, barely covering rent, job hunting over the holiday period. Centerlink forgot to send me a group certificate and the taxation office audited me. I had to pay them back $300.
I eventually landed in the public service in workers’ compensation health administration and stayed for a decade. It was unionised, a permanent role with Award protections and stability. I had never been ambitious for power or wealth. I only wanted security, a decent income, camaraderie and to be of service. I finally felt like I was making a difference to people’s lives and it allowed me to embark on adulthood with the self-respect and independence I’d always strived for, even though career progression was corporatised and near impossible. In that role I was able to travel, I met my partner, we bought our first home and started a family. I wasn’t fully prepared for the interruption to my working life that having children was going to bring.
I had my first child and while on unpaid maternity leave, conceived two more; twins. Suddenly we were responsible for three young children. Returning to full-time work was not an option until they were in daycare, around the age of two which was our personal preference. Privatised childcare is expensive and even with the rebate and my partner’s uninterrupted income, we could only afford a couple of days. Sydney is cursed with the tyranny of distance, traffic, and inadequate parking and public transport. Not working in my local area felt overwhelming. My partner and I agreed that we’d only access school hours at daycare to get accustomed to a routine as early as possible, knowing how short the school day is and how unaccommodating full-time employment and workplaces are to these limitations. If I was going to return to work, it was only going to be a couple of days a week with daycare restricted to school hours.
I had a total of four years out of the workforce and watched as my superannuation plummeted compared to my partner’s and as soon as the twins joined their older sibling at daycare two days a week, I started looking for work. Seven months and over 60 applications later I found another public service administration role in health. I persevered for almost three years, but then Covid-19 hit. The kids had started primary school by then and I was required to home school. It was a short-lived return to the workforce.
After lockdown ended, I didn’t go back to work. The risks felt too high, the uncertainty of further adjustments related to the pandemic too distracting. The casualisation of my role, the culture of devaluation of administrative work in general, the travel, and the lack of working from home options, which we needed a pandemic to even begin to talk about as a nation, didn’t provide enough incentive to balance the demands of a young family with paid employment. So, for now, I guess I’m semi-retired and hope to have a decent income again someday. Or not.