I first came across Frances in a big meeting in Sydney and was immediately struck by her thoughtful and active engagement in the conversation. A couple of months later, I came across a piece she wrote for Inside Story on the future of care work in Australia. I don’t do this often enough but I wrote to her thanking her for writing such a wonderful article and for raising issues that are so often either discussed in terms of highly individual experiences – in a way that makes it hard to see the big picture- or in a way that skims over the complexities. Frances puts a language to the experiences of people that do care work in a way that is respectful and values care work, but that also sees it as part of a patchwork of other types of fulfilling work.
In the following interview, conducted via email, Frances Flanagan shares some thoughts on being a parent while pursuing a meaningful research and advocacy career on an issue many of us care deeply about – the changing nature of work, particularly care work, in Australia. She explores this research topic, among others as the Research Director at United Voice – a union that advocates for labour rights of people in miscellaneous industries, including early childhood teachers. She holds a DPhil and masters from the University of Oxford. Her book, Remembering the Revolution: dissent, culture and nationalism in the Irish Free State, was shortlisted for the 2016 Royal Historical Society Whitfield Prize.
What has been your biggest challenge in your career or leadership journey as a working mother?
The biggest challenge I find is the ongoing experience of having to constantly move between and negotiate two different worlds: a professional world that still, fundamentally, assumes that everyone is free from encumbrance when it comes to allocating status and value; and life as a parent, which is predicated on being able to turn your attention to your children and partner and community as they need it, without paid work getting in the way. It’s extremely hard to not feel inadequate in both roles, and yet the thought of wholly abandoning one identity in order to meet expectations in just one would feel like a terrible loss. So we stumble on, living with the imperfection: missing some school events, not being able to stay back to complete documents, opting out of committees or projects at work because of the cost they will impose on family life. Not maintaining as many relationships or doing as much exercise as we would like.
What has been your biggest triumph? Tell us about a time that you achieved something (big or small) despite the odds against you
Everything I’ve done that has felt important has been a team effort with others, so it’s hard to pick just one thing. I’ve felt really proud of the work we’ve done at United Voice in resisting the further privatisation and marketization of human services in Australia, as well as our initiatives to improve work conditions for temporary migrant workers. At a more individual level, finishing my PhD with a newborn, while living in a tiny little London flat far away from family felt pretty triumphant! On the home front, I was pretty chuffed the other day when my husband and another dad organised a playdate all by themselves, while the mothers in question worked and didn’t have to intervene at all. That was a new frontier in shared parenting, and it felt really amazing!
You write a lot about structural barriers surrounding the possibility for women (and men!) to pursue meaningful, secure work that is sustainable in all senses of the world – what would be your top ‘big ideas’, we should be considering to overcome some of these?
There’s a great deal of unfinished business, in grappling with the long legacy of the male breadwinner model of work. Caregiving work is still, despite decades of formal equality, overwhelmingly done by women, and, when it is performed on a paid basis, is done for comparatively lower pay, less security and lower status. I can’t see how that trend is going to be arrested without multiple forms of collective and somewhat radical intervention: policies like use-it-or-lose-it parental leave to encourage men to do more care work at home, and a systematic and deliberate increase in the investment, as a society, in the (still) ‘women’s work’ of care, education and health.
The systematic difficulty is that we’ve had over thirty years of economic orthodoxy that has encouraged us to think that these spheres of human activity are best governed by the logic of markets, profit-making and competition. I don’t have anything against markets in their place, but these are all forms of work that really fundamentally don’t work like that. They are about human attentiveness, not the production of things. Trying to do them ‘efficiently’ and competitively misses the point.
So, if you really want ‘big ideas’, I’d also like to see a return to policies designed around human needs, rather than systems designed to foster profit-making. This would not necessarily be an explicitly gendered project, but it would have implications for gender equality.
We hear a lot these days about the future of work, and how technology is going to shift the work landscape significantly. What are your thoughts on this, and what implications do you think this has for us as working parents, but also in terms of how we parent?
Of course, the introduction of digital technology has had and will continue to have, significant impacts on a range of jobs, particularly those that involve the application of routine processes and analytical skills. As a society, we need to be sympathetic and responsive to those workers and provide mechanisms that enable them to transition to other forms of work with dignity and a level of economic security, including lifelong learning and affordable vocational education. Needless to say, ‘lifters and leaners’ rhetoric and punitively-low levels of Newstart take us in the wrong direction.
But we should be attending, too, to ensuring that the kinds of jobs we know we are going to need that aren’t necessarily going to be directly disrupted by digital technology are also properly supported and secure. There are a lot of those, and because many of them are done by working class people, they tend to get a lot less attention in the ‘future of work’ debate.
In terms of parenting in the age of digital disruption, my impulse is to try to foster a sense that no matter what dazzling digital tools and gadgets we build, it’s ultimately we humans who are in charge. We can, and must, decide how to put technology to use: we can use technology to include people and build an egalitarian world, or a surveillance-based and exclusive one. It’s up to us, not the robots.
Would I like my kids to grow up knowing how to code? Probably, but it’s more important to me, on balance, for them to have a strong set of values and a sense of historical and civic literacy.
Can you tell us about one thing (a tool, an experience, training, the support of a friend or mentor etc.) that has been useful to you on your leadership journey?
The friendship and support of like-minded women is deeply sustaining to me. Not all of these people are mothers, but they are people with a shared sense of curiosity, creativity and interest in ways of being in the world that sit beyond the narrow and conspicuous versions of ‘success’ that tend to proliferate in the media and social media. I also find it immensely useful to try to read and learn about periods of history that pre-date the last forty years, and immerse myself in another time and place where very different ideas of human flourishing and power relationships prevail. Reading history and fiction from the past wakes me up, it makes me grateful for the society I live in, and well as invigorating my imagination for what we might achieve to make it better.
Can you tell us about one self-care strategy that has enabled you to embrace your leadership whilst taking care of yourself and your needs as a working mama?
Do I really have to just pick one? Ok, if I only have one it would have to be ‘slowing down’ in general. If I get to pick a few then I would say reading novels (on paper), cooking, watching David, my husband, doing things in the garden, running short distances quite slowly while listening to daggy music, learning piano (as an adult beginner, with no desire to perform), snuggling up with my kids in bed and talking nonsense.
Take this topic further:
- Read Frances’ article On the gig economy
- Another excellent article is On the future of care work
- You might also enjoy Ann-Marie Slaughter’s book Unfinished Business*
*Please note that this is an affiliate link. Should you click the link and choose to make a purchase, we will receive a small commission (the price is the same for you). This helps to support our Lead Mama Lead and our revolutionary work.