The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Working mothers are changing equations in the labour market

The author teaches economics at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

The familiar gender-based division of labour is changing, and — in the West in particular — the organization of work and the family may be changing fundamentally with it. In the Sixties and Seventies it became increasingly common for mothers to go out to work, and as a consequence there was a drop in the number of children in each family. As women developed successful careers, many decided not to have children at all. Without that cementing factor the family as an institution lost focus, and the birth rate in the West dropped precariously.

That birth rate, however, is still significantly above zero, and it is not sustained wholly by women who stay at home, by a long margin. When the Joneses both work and the marketing industry creates ever-increasing needs, staying at home is a luxury few can afford. Hence women who choose to have children must find ways to balance the ensuing responsibilities against work, or have husbands do their share. The husbands have apparently been slow to respond. Women’s attempts at forging a work-family balance, in the meantime, have created interesting changes in the labour market, with consequences from which men are no longer immune.

The brunt of the burden in that balance is borne by part-time work. In the United Kingdom, for example, there are currently about 28.5 million employed workers, of whom 15.5 million are men, and just under 13 million are women — not a vast difference. However, only about one in ten men works part-time, while nearly half the women do so. In Australia, Japan, Canada and the United States of America a good seven out of ten part-time jobs are held by women. In western Europe, that fraction hovers at around eight out of ten. Part-time jobs are tailored for women.

Consider how this has affected the profile of employment over the years. In Australia between 1980 and 2000, the proportion of working-age men that were employed decreased from 82 per cent to 77 per cent, while the proportion of women of that age increased from 47 per cent to 61 per cent. As a consequence, the proportion of part-time jobs increased from one out of every six in 1980 to more than one in four in 2000. Put differently, the workforce of Australia increased from about 6 million to about 9 million between those years, and of the three new millions at work, 1.25 million — close to a half — took part-time jobs.

That pattern is repeated across the West. In eastern Europe, in contrast, part-time jobs are shared about equally between men and women. This is because the former socialists have much better child-care facilities, having been more sensitive in the past to questions of gender equality.

Part-time work is also shared fairly equally in the less-developed world for three main reasons: higher unemployment means that men are more willing to accept such jobs, women tend to work less outside the home, and family ties have not fully broken down yet — so grandma looks after the children when mummy goes to work.

There is little doubt that women’s choice between part-time and full-time work is driven primarily by the needs of their children. Among Australian women in the 25-44 age group, 90 per cent of those without dependent children are at work, 70 per cent are at work full-time. Of women with children to care for, only about 60 per cent are at work, and only 25 per cent work full time.

Having children, however, affects more than the choice of how many hours to work, it influences the woman’s career prospects as well. One prominent trend in recent decades is that women have the first child later in life — often past the mid-thirties. A woman who does well early in her career postpones the fertility decision because she does not want to disrupt a good thing. Another woman may simply become used to the working lifestyle and ample income, and decide she does not want a child.

The greater number of women, however, work alongside and between episodes of childbirth and child-rearing. Such a woman is likely to work full-time early in her life, cutting back or dropping out of the workforce altogether when she has the first child. She returns to work when the child is a few years old, but is now a part-time worker balancing work against the family’s demands on her time. She may switch in and out of the labour force or vary her hours again if she has a second child, and adjust work patterns during critical events in her children’s lives (such as higher secondary examinations). She is also likely to switch employers often — her commitment is short-term as well as part-time. It is only later, when the children grow up, that she will settle back to a regular job.

For the firm, it is not worthwhile to provide such a worker with extensive in-house training, since that investment will not produce adequate returns. It is better not to put her in a task which generates useful on-the-job learning, for that experience will be lost when she moves on. She is likely to be hired, therefore, in a low-skill, static job. A young careerist may call it a dead-end job. But the dead-endedness is balanced by the freedom that comes from reduced responsibility; the mother does not take the job home with her. She has another job there, or two.

Recall that, in the Australian example, of the 3 million new workers who entered the work-force in the past two decades, 1.25 million worked part-time. Clearly they were matched with 1.25 million part-time jobs, quite possibly 1.25 million dead-end jobs. In 1980, only one out of six jobs was part-time; of the net jobs created since then about one out of two was part-time.

If we accept that part-time jobs tend to employ workers with lower skills, provide less on-the-job training, and consist of tasks from which less can be learnt, then we must accept that the kind of work that is being generated in recent decades is significantly different from before.

It is of course possible that there has been no change in the number of low-skill jobs, they just have been broken up into part-time packages. I tend to doubt that this is so. Two different influences are much more likely to have been at work. First, the information revolution has substantially reduced the need for many skills. With a few weeks of vocational school, a parttime mother can do on a computer what experienced clerks of yore had struggled years to learn.

The other is that, to take advantage of the changed composition of the workforce, companies have redefined and restructured their production processes. This has created the kinds of tasks which part-time workers can perform most economically.

It is in the Eighties that “restructuring” started to become a business catchphrase. In different guises it has continued until today, and by all indications still has some breath left in it. The ranks of middle management have been decimated in the process, customer service has become a major focus, and organizations such as IBM, HP, and Japan Inc.— which at one time prided themselves on never firing a worker — have moved to workforces with sizeable transient components. Quite a bit of this is in response to the changed composition of the workforce. Today, both firms and workers expect shorter commitments from each other. This has effects on production processes, pension plans, education acquisition, as well as the bringing up of children.

When humans were hunter-gatherers, men hunted and women gathered. This is not because the men were stronger or more skilful. Rather, women had to care for the children and needed predictable hours, which the hunt could not assure. They gathered, nevertheless, because the hunters did not bring home enough, and gathering was a simple way to supplement the provisions. That gender-based division of labour is borne of a tension which has not left us yet.

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