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She has critics, but a sociologist's views on women's choices demand to be heard, writes Bettina Arndt.
Catherine Hakim is no shrinking violet. The British sociologist, who arrives in Australia next week for a series of lectures and seminars, has spent the past six years mounting a head-on assault on many cherished feminist assumptions about women's employment.
Her formidable knowledge, gained from 10 years as a government employment policy adviser, plus her own solid body of path-breaking research and theory, has won Hakim considerable international recognition and policy influence.
She has already made waves in Australia following a ringing endorsement of her writings last year from Prime Minister John Howard, who declared himself "very impressed" by her "realistic and compelling" theories and sent his social policy adviser, John Perrin, to London to meet her.
Her expertise and strong opinions have made her central in two of our policy hot spots - maternity leave and fertility.
"We have always been Hakim people," says Pru Goward of the Sex Discrimination Commission. Goward speaks proudly of including Hakim's theories in the interim report on maternity leave produced by the commission.
Then there was last year's debate on fertility policy, with Hakim taking on Australian National University demographer Peter McDonald in the pages of the Monash journal People and Place.
Bob Birrell, one of the journal editors, is finding her views have had quite an impact. "Her thesis is very much in play in Australia," he says.
Well, what is her thesis? In the simplest terms, Hakim's Preference Theory aims to explain and predict the choices women make in their work and family lives. She argues that women are not a homogeneous group but are deliberately choosing three different work/family lifestyles.
A minority of women (between 10 and 30 per cent) are work-centred, giving priority to employment, while a similar proportion are home-centred, with their priorities centred on their children and preferring not to work. This leaves between 60 and 80 per cent in what Hakim calls the "adaptive" group, who prefer to structure work around their family responsibilities.
Hakim's research shows these preferences predict not only women's employment patterns, but their marital and fertility rates. Her latest British survey finds three-quarters of work-centred women are employed, and typically working full-time. The majority were not married and they had very low fertility rates.
In contrast, the great majority of home-centred women were married, with twice as many children as work-centred women, and most were full-time homemakers or had part-time jobs.
Patterns for the adaptive women fell between these two extremes, although they had more in common with the home-centred group.
Hakim says policies designed to increase fertility rates are most likely to be successful if they make life easier for home-centred and adaptive women, who are more interested in having children.
So home-care allowances will do more than maternity leave and increased child care, which appeal mainly to work-centred women whose fertility is hard to budge.
Such a bare-bones summary of her work fails to do credit to the wide-ranging intellectual arguments that frame her ideas, which are always well supported by empirical analysis.
Not that her critics are always convinced. "Why does our Prime Minister find her views refreshing? Well, they are simple, they appeal to his type of thinking," sneered an Australian academic who is far from a Hakim fan.
So Hakim remains a controversial figure among Australian academics and policy bureaucrats, many of whom still promote views on women's employment that she has attempted to seriously discredit - namely, that gender wage gap and sex differences in work rates are mainly due to discrimination.
Twenty years ago, Hakim would have agreed with them.
"We all believed it. It was a completely taken for granted assumption that the only thing that had held women back from achievement in the labour market was discrimination," Hakim said at her London home recently.
It was during her 10-year stint working in the British Department of Employment as a labour market analyst that she noticed the research was saying something very different.
When she joined the London School of Economics and was asked to give an introductory seminar, she came out intent on stirring. The title she chose for her talk was Five Feminist Myths about Women's Employment.
"I thought 'if you are going to be provocative, be really provocative'," she says. The room was full. "It was overflowing; people were hanging out the window."
Her powerful arguments ended up in the British Journal of Sociology, which then published an unprecedented two-part response from 11 critics.
Hakim attacked the myth of rising female employment, showing full-time rates had remained steady, with most female growth in part-time jobs. She argued it was untrue that women's work commitment was the same as men's, that inadequate child care was what kept most women out of the workforce, and that part-time workers saw themselves as exploited and were longing to go into full-time work - all myths that as a work-centred woman she had once taken for granted.
That's the problem, says Hakim, who acknowledges that as a person who gives priority to her work, in the past she made the mistake of assuming other women thought similarly.
"The position of women has been misrepresented by the pundits because most pundits, whether they are academics, or journalists, tend to be work-centred women themselves."
Hakim also points out many of her colleagues are, like her, childless - another factor she believes contributes to their blinkered approach.
Ten years ago, Hakim married a government industrial relations analyst, but had decided not to have children. She has recently become very interested in voluntary childlessness and the role it is playing in the drop in fertility, and is about to embark on a research project exploring the issue.
With substantial media reaction to her comments from across Europe, Hakim has developed her preferences theory in a series of articles and books. They include Work-Lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century (2000), and the new one due in June next year, Models of the Family in Modern Society: Ideals and Realities.
"She now has a serious academic reputation, but she has been criticised despite her efforts to concentrate on facts. Women's employment is such an ideological subject and a lot of people are not very interested in the evidence," says Cambridge economist Professor Bob Rowthorn.
Rowthorn says many academics working in allied fields have long had a "sense of unease" about ideological distortion of evidence in women's employment policy debates.
But ANU sociology professor Judy Wajcman has just returned from working at the London School of Economics, and claims Hakim has failed to convince most of the people working in the field. Wajcman does not accept Hakim's criticism of feminist scholarship in the area. "I don't buy the line feminists were so dictatorial in terms of what women do," she says.
Last year, Anne Summers, a former women's adviser to Paul Keating, wrote an open letter to John Howard, commenting on his promotion of Hakim. Her theories, said Summers, were "a statement of the bleeding obvious, but if it takes an English woman to get you focused on what Australian feminists have been arguing for years, so be it".
Melbourne University sociologist Mariah Evans has long followed the debates over women's employment and believes Hakim's promotion of diversity is very different from the narrow policies promoted by most Australian academics and policy advisers such as Summers.
"I have never heard one of the prominent Australian feminists argue that the views of home-centred or adaptive women be given serious consideration," she says, adding that policies under the Keating government were slanted mainly at work-centred women.
Howard has proved a rare politician in his support for Hakim's theories. The Blair Government remains committed to encouraging women into employment, but Hakim has found splits in the ranks of conservative politicians, some of whom have privately expressed support for her views while worrying about "political acceptability".
The Howard Government is examining a range of policies catering to women's preferences that will receive cabinet attention in pre-budget discussions.
These may well include some paid maternity leave provision, which Hakim supports, although she sees it as a policy mainly of benefit to work-centred and limited numbers of adaptive women.
Cross-country comparisons feature strongly in Hakim's work, perhaps due to her own exotic background. She was brought up in the Middle East, arriving in Britain at 16 to attend boarding school. Her PhD research was on the Venezuelan education system and Australia often features among the international data that underpin her theories.
She is keen to learn more about Australian women's work and lifestyle preferences, and is lobbying to have defining questions included in our new longitudinal survey - Household, Income, and Labour Dynamics in Australia.
Given her friends in high places, this will be a request hard to refuse.
Catherine Hakim is due to speak at the Australian Institute of Family Studies' Melbourne conference (Feb 12-14).
Copyright © 2003 The Age Company Ltd