Women: Different work patterns require a variety of policiesby News WeeklyNews Weekly
, January 27, 2001
Using recent British research, feminist and public commentator, Bettina Arndt, has challenged the conventional view of the media and most feminists that women have more to offer society as workers than as full-time mothers, and that childcare is essential to encouraging parents to have more children.
In a recent article in The Age (December 23, 2000), Arndt said that 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.
She cited important recent research by Catherine Hakim from the London School of Economics.
Hakim is a sociologist who has spent much of the past decade drawing attention to the importance of these diverse work patterns among women in the Western world.Work habits
In her most recent book, Work-Lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century, Hakim draws on the large amount of data available on international comparisons in women's working habits to show there has been no steady increase in full-time employment among women.
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 of women who structure employment around their family responsibilities. As Hakim explains:
"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."
Bettina Arndt comments:
"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 60-80 per 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 increasingly limiting their families to one child, particularly in countries such as the United States and France where there is little part-time work."Fertility rates
Hakim argues that it is the rise of the one-child family, rather than childlessness, that has had the most impact on national fertility rates.
Arndt believes that for 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.
Hakim's research also shows that it makes perfect sense also to 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."