The Age

Mum's the word: why many women prefer to stay at home

The Age (Melbourne)
Saturday 23 December 2000

Eva Cox was fighting mad. The outspoken researcher was shocked at the results of a New South Wales Government study that showed strong support for the notion children are better off when their mothers are not in the workforce.

"I question any form of payment that rewards women for choosing to stay home," she said, fuming about the Howard Government's changes to parenting payments to support home-carers.

Cox's view - that children are better off with working mothers, and all children over 12 months should be in group care - may be extreme, but her conviction that all women should be encouraged into full-time work is widespread among academics and social policy experts.

Similar prejudices emerged in the recent public debate on Australia's declining birth rate. "Women have more to offer society as workers than as stay-at-home mums. Policies that accept child care as essential are crucial to encouraging parents to have more children," a recent editorial in The Australian said.

How irritating for these people that women are so stubbornly resisting this view of what's best for them. In Australia, as in all other Western countries, the evidence is clear that only a small minority of women dedicate themselves to full-time work throughout their lives, with much the same proportion showing a similar dedication to the home, avoiding paid employment.

The rest choose to structure their working lives around family commitments, often working part-time, at least when they have young children.

Contrary to expectations, there is no world-wide trend towards more women working full-time. Rather, diversity is the key, with women's work/lifestyle preferences playing an ever-stronger role in determining women's employment patterns.

Catherine Hakim is a London School of Economics sociologist who has spent much of the past decade drawing attention to the importance of these diverse work patterns. In 1995, she gained notoriety with the publication of an article demolishing "feminist myths" about women's employment. Female newspaper columnists in Britain attacked her for challenging the assumptions that female employment continues to rise, that women show similar work commitment and patterns of employment to men, that child-care problems are the major barrier to women's employment, and that women are unhappy and exploited in part-time jobs.

Hakim argues the reason there is no steady increase in full-time employment is only a minority of women (between 10 per cent and 30 per cent) are work-centred. A similar proportion are home-centred, giving priority to children and preferring not to work. This leaves between 60 and 80 per cent in what Hakim calls the "adaptive" group who structure employment around their family responsibilities.

Her latest book, Work-lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century, published last month, offers a convincing analysis of the impact of this diversity, drawing on the large amount of data available on international comparisons in women's working habits.

Hakim shows social and fiscal policies can squeeze or expand the proportion of women in each of the three preference groups, but divisions remain despite all efforts of governments to try to steer women in particular directions.

Hakim's view is that government policy is unlikely to achieve its goals if women are treated as a single, homogenous group. Since the three groups respond differently to changed social and fiscal policies, they must be carefully targeted to achieve desired policy outcomes.

As an example, her new book contains a great deal of material relevant to Australia's debate on the declining birth rate.

SHE makes the point that providing more publicly funded child care will have no impact on fertility in the work-centred group, many of whom are childless. Hakim claims that about half the women in this group, particularly those with higher educational qualifications and professional jobs, are willing and able to pay for child care and that subsidising these services will not affect declining birth rates. Besides, their numbers are small compared with the 60-80per cent of women who comprise the adaptive group.

According to Hakim, this is the group whose fertility patterns are most affecting birth rates. She finds women in the adaptive group, who wish to combine working with caring for their children, are increasing limiting their families to one child, particularly in countries such as the United States and France where there is little part-time work. "It is the rise of the one-child family, rather than childlessness, that has had the most impact on national fertility rates," says Hakim.

For this group, it pays to offer publicly funded child care plus parental leave and flexible work policies that make it easier for women to care for their own children.

As Hakim points out, it makes perfect sense to also target the home-centred group. "You concentrate your efforts on those groups who would be inclined to have more children. Apart from the adaptive group, this also means encouraging home-centred women to have larger families through allowances that recognise their work when they care for more children."

That is exactly what the French Government has been doing. "Most of the research on France emphasises the high rate of full-time employment among women," says Hakim. "Studies regularly point to the excellent public child-care system claiming this ensures that French women do not have to choose between employment and family work. Yet the rate of full-time female employment in France is almost identical to that of Germany and Britain and something like one-third of women of working age are out of the labor market."

THE swelling of the home-centred group in France to about 30 per cent is largely due to policies offering home-care allowances to parents caring for their children at home, plus subsidies for two or more children.Recent surveys show French women show a strong preference for such policies rather than improved child-care services.

Hakim is critical of the bias shown by many researchers reporting on the popularity of these policies. "The feminist researchers are horrified by these trends. All the published material you find on the schemes is completely negative. It's quite amazing how they deride the idea of giving women the choice to stay at home," says Hakim.

Hakim's outspoken views receive a poor reception in some academic circles. There are many who continue to take issue with her notion of dividing women into three groups based on work-lifestyle preferences.

Much of the criticism focuses on the supposed permanence of these divisions, arguing that women are likely to move from one group to another.

"A number of commentators have pointed out that the attitudes of women workers, particularly the salience of work relative to other `life goals', are not necessarily fixed or static, but may change over time and may vary between individuals depending on the work context and family life cycle," says Janet Walsh, a former senior lecturer in management at Melbourne University, now at the University of London.

Walsh challenged Hakim's assumption that many adaptive women "choose" part-time work, rather than finding themselves involuntarily in these jobs due to a lack of other alternatives. Yet when Walsh studied a group of 1182 women employed part-time in the Australian banking industry, her results provided strong support for Hakim's theories. She found one-quarter of the group were women with no dependent children who had no plans to work full-time. Over half of the total group similarly had no plans for increased workforce participation, regarding themselves as secondary earners in their families.

As Hakim predicts, the goals and priorities of many of these part-time workers are very different from those likely to be found in a career-oriented group of women. But Hakim does not preclude the possibility that some of these women will become more career-oriented at a later stage in their lives.

"When I say that adaptive women want a balance between family and market work, I mean that at stages of their life when they don't have children they may work full-time, but when they have children they may step back completely or go to part-time work. So over the whole of their life course, there is a balance between work and family, but at any single point in time they may be giving priority to one or the other," Hakim says, pointing out that her other two groups have a much more determined commitment either to work or family.

Melbourne University sociologist Maria Evans believes Hakim's position is so well established that "you would have to be bloody-minded to quarrel with it".

Having gained support for her basic theories, Hakim is now breaking new ground with some controversial contentions outlined in her latest book. She has new data showing her preference groups exist across all levels of education and social class. She produces fascinating British research showing that female pharmacists with the same qualifications as their male colleagues show different work patterns with male pharmacists using their work as a route into self-employment or management jobs and women using it as a source of mother-friendly, part-time employment with limited responsibilities that do not spill into family time.

Far from disappearing, these preferences are showing an even stronger influence on younger generations. Hakim is showing that women's preferences are becoming increasingly important compared with the economic and social structural factors influencing employment decisions.

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