Work and home life balance examined


Time that working parents spend with children is not quality time if the hours are used for cleaning bathrooms, the Australian ambassador told a seminar for women at the weekend.

Anne Plunkett said it was important that working women achieved senior executive status so that they could afford the practical help that would liberate their time to be spent with family.

The seminar, Seeking to enhance understanding among women, was also addressed by the South African ambassador, Priscilla Jana, Mildred Fox TD, Mairéad McGuinness MEP, Prof Ivana Bacik and former MEP Patricia McKenna. It was held at the Glencree centre for reconciliation and was chaired by RTÉ journalist Áine Lawlor.

Ms Plunkett said recent changes in Australia, including the introduction of flexible working time, meant she had been able to leave her office and go across town to take part in reading programmes at her children's schools.

Flexible time and an instruction from Australia's department of foreign affairs and trade that workers "had permission" to go home at 6pm were important instruments for both men and women in recognising family time.

Senior officials, both male and female, were now rarely at their desk beyond 6pm because of the recognition of family life.

She and her husband had agreed that each would defer their career to the other at important times. It was one of the luxuries of public service that they could both opt for career breaks to facilitate this. Achieving senior executive status was also important so that practical help in the home could be afforded.

However, this was not to demean the voluntary sector, where valuable work was done by those who did not get paid at all.

In an address which was peppered with amusing anecdotes of the perceptions of women in the civil service and diplomatic corps, she said she was aware that difficulties could be greater for women in different cultures.

On one occasion as a foreign diplomat, she had been invited to an evening at a neighbouring embassy. The diplomatic circle was interested in the evening because one of the hosts, a woman, had been a militant revolutionary in her own country.

When the diplomatic corps arrived, they were somewhat surprised to be treated to a fashion show compered by a man.

Another time her presence at a seminar on empowering women had led to objections because the country where they were based had severe religious and cultural restrictions on the role of women and it was felt that Ms Plunkett's experience could be of no practical value.

Mildred Fox, who is not standing for re-election this year, said she was finding it increasingly difficult to come home from work "and go out to work again" in the evening. Of her own upbringing "in a very political household", she recalled just one family holiday to Kerry. "After three days we had to go home because daddy had to go back to attend a funeral."

Ms Fox, who has three young children, said she did not know what the solution was, but she maintained that it was a problem common to men and women.

Mairéad McGuinness said there was a lot of inefficiency in political life. She could receive 1,000 letters on a single issue and, while she wanted to address it, she did not want, for efficiency as well as environmental reasons, to send 1,000 replies. She revealed that in her broadcasting career it had once been suggested that "a younger woman who was not pregnant" might front the broadcast.

The seminar was held to mark international women's day on March 8th.