It's time someone praised and defended reckless teenage
girls and young women who behave badly, dress provocatively,
engage in risky sex, and get pregnant. They are the normal
ones. The rest of us are the deviants. They are behaving in
the most natural way. The rest of us are mutants.
There is nothing wrong with pelvic display, push-up bras,
Gosford miniskirts, spray-on jeans, low-cut tops, bare legs,
bare arms, bare ankles, G-strings or even buttock cleavage,
providing the displayer is young enough to get away with it. A
woman's body is at its fertility peak between the ages of 17
and 23. So when young women advertise or flaunt their
sexuality they are being driven by a force far stronger than
the Judeo-Christian ethic. They are driven by the power of
peak fertility and a million years of evolutionary biology.
Nature has programmed them for pregnancy, genetic diversity
and keeping the species going. A big job.
Sexually active teenage girls, and sexually promiscuous
women of any age, carry the greatest social burden of
judgements, punishments, restrictions and risks because we
haven't got the child-care equation right. These women are
just doing their job. They are real, while the rest of the
equation is artificial. Society is the collective weight of
traditions, conventions, laws, habits, fears, tribes, taboos
and technologies, permeated by a Judeo-Christian ethic
dominated by men and designed to curb female sexual power. Our
norms are also dominated by the ideology of materialism that
is moving women further and further towards unnatural
behaviour, pressuring them to have babies later rather than
This is society's real problem. Teenage pregnancy is
trivial by comparison to suppressed pregnancy.
A healthier society would allow women to have children
earlier than they do now. At 32, no matter what people want to
believe, the reproductive system is far less robust than it
was 10 years earlier. Our aim should be to have children born
into a culture where there is plenty of support for child care
in addition to the mother, thus liberating mothers to more
fully exploit the possibilities that advanced society can
Children are the most important asset in our culture, so
society should be structured around this central reality.
Instead, we are structuring society around consumerism - a
treadmill of bigger homes, more possessions, more holidays,
more glamour - for which we run the risk of becoming
impoverished. When the pattern of peak reproduction at peak
fertility is broken, as it is now, women are forced by
economic circumstances or social pressure to postpone
pregnancy. Collective fertility inevitably falls, usually
below replacement level. Societies such as Australia's and
most in Western Europe now depend on imported fertility.
This brings us to the big political story, the significant
expansion of the right to parental leave granted by the
Australian Industrial Relations Commission last Monday. In the
week since that decision was handed down, its importance has
been drowned out by meaningless speculative clamour over the
balance of power in the new Senate.
The new industrial award is exponentially more important.
It gives an employee a right to request a maximum of two years
of unpaid parental leave, up from one year. They can request
to work part-time after returning from parental leave, until
the child reaches school age. And they can request up to eight
weeks of paternal leave (as distinct from parental leave), up
from a maximum of one.
Such requests can be refused. However, the commission has
placed a higher burden on employers, who are required to show
reasonable grounds for refusal, rather than simply deny the
request outright. This is a shift in the balance towards
nurture. Will it hurt the job prospects of women? A good
litmus test is the opinion of the super-dry economist Dr Des
Moore, a former senior Treasury official and director of the
Institute for Private Enterprise.
"There is no reason why parental leave cannot be negotiated
between employers and employees," he told me. "If some
employers cannot provide it, as would be the case with most
small businesses, the job seeker who wants it can try
elsewhere. If it is regarded as so socially important that it
ought to be provided, which seems highly doubtful to me, then
the Government should legislate, rather than allow half-baked
judges to decide our social policy." (The "half-baked judges"
would be the industrial relations commissioners.)
The Howard Government has responded tepidly to the
full-bench decision. It can thank the Blair Government in
Britain for these provisions. The new federal award is based
in large part on amendments made in 2002 to its Employment
Rights Act. The British experience suggests that most
employers will seek to accommodate requests for flexible
working conditions by the parents of young children.
A survey conducted last year of employees in Britain found
that 77 per cent of requests for flexible work arrangements
were fully met by employers, and another 9 per cent of
requests were partially met. Thirteen per cent of all
employees requested flexible working conditions for child
care. Of employees with children under the age of six, 37 per
cent of women requested flexible conditions, and only 10 per
cent of men.
"In Britain, the great majority of requests, 86 per cent,
for greater flexibility to care for young children have been
agreed to by employers, and there has not been a single court
case as a result of the changes," said Pru Goward, one of the
supporters of the new provisions. Goward, John Howard's
personal choice as federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner,
has proved to be more of a handful than he might have
expected. "In light of the industrial relations reforms being
discussed by the Federal Government," Goward told me, "I hope
this test case highlights the need for workplace flexibility
in any proposed reforms."
Especially when it comes to child care. Back to you, Prime
Minister. The tension between fertility and materialism is one
of the great unresolved dilemmas of our time, not just for
women, but for society.
© 2005 Sydney Morning Herald