October 20th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Issues for the forthcoming election

TESTIMONIAL: Digger James: Why I support 'News Weekly'

CANBERRA OBSERVED: The 'other' election on November 10

ECONOMICS: Who's looking after world trade

BIOETHICS: Cloning: a mixed bag

Straws in the Wind: Come in, Spinner

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Parents call for increased penalties for drug trafficking

TERRORISM: Why the Muslim world hates America

AFGHANISTAN: Australia must protect the innocent victims of war

Letter: Refugee analysis wrong

Letter: Free trade challenge

Letter: Marriage costs

PACIFIC: After the civil war: Bougainville looks ahead

MEDIA: Mutual admiration / "Beazley-class" subs

COMMENT: Baddies are not always cowards

DOCUMENTATION: Latest data show mothers' preference for home

COMMENT: Don't hurt us, we're men

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Latest data show mothers' preference for home

by M.D.R. Evans and Jonathan Kelley

News Weekly, October 20, 2001

In the latest issue of Monash University's People and Place, researchers M.D.R. Evans and Jonathan Kelley argue that the most extensive data now available shows that almost three-quarters of Australian mothers believe that mothers should not work when their children are of pre-school age, and only two per cent think that they should work full-time.

Though 12 per cent of such mothers actually worked full-time during most of the time their children were under school age, some of them may have been working longer hours than they would have liked, and 62 per cent in fact stayed at home through most of this stage of life.

Family policy should reflect the diversity of wishes of parents of young children, but as most prefer full-time homemaking, this is the option that should be given pride of place.

The employment of mothers with pre-school children is a matter of deep concern to policy makers throughout the developed world. This is an issue in which almost everyone is a stakeholder, and almost everyone experiences conflicting incentives.

Sharp questions produce strong emotions here. Are homemakers wasting their time and forgoing earnings unnecessarily? Are working mothers unwittingly harming their children? For families, the financial implications of having (or forgoing) a mother's earnings are great; and the emotional and moral implications of causing preventable harm to offspring are also great.

It is a relatively new issue, because until the post-war period, Australian women's labour force activity had held quite steady for over a century, with about one third of women participating in paid work and the vast majority of these participants being unmarried. 

Australia entered the post-war period with very few married women in employment. As recently as 1950, only about one wife in 10 held a paid job, a figure that skyrocketed to four or five out of 10 by the late 1970s, and has been drifting gently upwards most of the time since.  In the second half of the 20th Century, wives have taken jobs in record numbers in many other industrialised countries, too.

The rapid growth in maternal employment lends apparent plausibility to the belief that many, perhaps most, mothers desire employment, and that the welfare of both mothers and the society as a whole would be enhanced by further growth in maternal employment.

Following from this, it's easy to believe that the pro-employment policies as advocated (for their different and often incompatible reasons) by many welfare agencies, feminists, political commentators, and tax offices have good prospects of success.

Such a view has been strongly argued in a recent issue of this journal by Peter McDonald.  The very first lines of the editors' précis of his argument claims: "Australian women show a strong attachment to employment. This article shows that this includes most mothers of pre-school children."

However, we will show that such a conclusion is unwarranted. There are two fundamental difficulties.

1. Although Australian mothers' labour force involvement rose through most of the post-war period - albeit perhaps not in the 1990s - this rise was from a low base. Overall involvement remains modest, both absolutely and compared to other developed nations.

2. Actual employment is only a fallible indicator of preferences for employment. In some societies, there is great unmet demand for employment - few mothers work while many want to work but are precluded from doing so by institutional or other constraints (for example, in Ireland). In other societies, there is unmet demand for homemaking - many mothers are forced to work by social pressure, government policy, or financial need, although they do not want to (for example, in Eastern Europe under Communism).

To find out about mothers' preferences, we need to go beyond behaviour and seek out the underlying preferences: we need to ask women what they actually want to do. 

This study explores ideal and actual workforce participation of mothers  with young children, using Australian data from the International Social Science Surveys/ Australia (IsssA) and international data from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP). Australian data are from the IsssA survey of 1994 and the preliminary sample of the IsssA 2001. The international data, the latest available, are from the ISSP surveys of 1994. 

In 2001, just two per cent of Australian mothers favour full-time maternal employment when children are pre-school age. Some 27 per cent favour part-time employment. The great majority of mothers, 71 per cent, think that it is right to stay home when the children are under school age.

Thus, if mothers worked as much as they think right, they would be employed less than seven hours per week, on average  - a long way from a 40-hour full-time work week. Mothers' attitudes in 1994 were much the same as in 2001. 

Even when we narrow down the focus to young women born in the 1960s and 1970s - among whom one might expect the greatest enthusiasm for maternal employment - seven per cent favour full-time employment for mothers of pre-school children.  That is a tiny, tiny minority. A correctly functioning democracy should protect the rights of tiny minorities, but there is no excuse for representing their views as majority opinion.

In sum, this is hardly a "strong attachment" to employment, as McDonald and many others would have it. Rather, it is a widespread preference for staying home, combined with a substantial minority taste for part-time employment, and a nearly universal rejection of full-time employment.

Indeed, if Australian mothers worked as much as they think right, during the nestling stage, it would take about six mothers of pre-schoolers to put in as many hours of work as a single full-time man.

In international perspective, Australian mothers are among the most inclined to think mothers should stay home when they have young children and the least in favour of employment. New Zealand, (ex-) West German, Polish, Australian, British, Hungarian, Japanese and Northern Irish mothers most strongly cherish the ideal of full-time homemaking during the nestling stage. Over 60 per cent of mothers in all these countries think that mothers should stay home during the nestling stage.

Mothers have a clear preference for part-time employment during the nestling stage in Sweden, ex-East Germany, and Israel. In these nations, very few mothers favour full-time homemaking during the nestling stage. But, equally, very few endorse full-time maternal employment during this stage - 16 to 20 hours a week of maternal employment when the children are pre-schoolers is seen as ideal by mothers in these countries.

Thus, throughout the world, few mothers endorse full-time employment while children are pre-school age. In some countries, a majority prefer part-time work.

In most nations, including Australia, full-time homemaking while the children are young is the way of life mothers most widely hold as ideal. On average, mothers in these 24 nations favour maternal employment of about twelve hours a week for mothers with young children (pooling all the countries together). 

In sum, there is hardly a "strong attachment" to employment in any of these 24 nations and certainly not (contrary to McDonald's claim) in Australia - indeed, Australian mothers are among the least inclined to approve paid work for mothers of young children.

In Australia, as in many other countries, the prevalence of maternal employment while there are pre-school children in the home has been increasing over time, but it is important to note that the increasing engagement is almost entirely in part-time employment.

Maternal part-time employment whilst children are pre-schoolers has risen from around 10 per cent among women born before 1930, to around 40 per cent among women born in the 1960s and 1970s, but full-time employment has only risen from 9 per cent to 15 per cent over that same span of cohorts.

This suggests that women's employment in Australia remains crucially dependent on their familial responsibilities.

Accordingly, we have investigated public opinion on the question of maternal employment using well-known data sources, the International Social Science Survey Australia and the International Social Survey Program. 

We find that, among Australian mothers, a substantial majority think it best for mothers to stay home when their children are small. This continues to be the dominant opinion among today's young women, although the majority is smaller.

Thus, employment and child-care policies that impede or disadvantage full-time homemaking for mothers of young children are indefensible in a democracy (full-time homemaking for mothers of young children is also the most widely held ideal in the broader electorate). That said, there is a very substantial minority of mothers who favour part-time maternal employment while the children are pre-schoolers, and a small minority who favour full-time employment.

In short, there is a diversity of opinion. Importantly, that means that no "one size fits all". In practical terms, to the extent that the Australian Government should be in the business of family policy, the most democratically responsible policies are those that do not unduly privilege any one of these ways of life.

For example, policies such as directing payments to childcare centres (which favour employed mothers over homemakers and favour institutional care over personal care) should be replaced by payments to the mother. The mother could use these as a partial substitute for income forgone by her withdrawal from the labour force, or as payments to a grandmother, babysitter, or day care centre for child-care while she is at work, or for some combination of these options.

Another possibility worth considering might be a life-long employment bank, allowing women in couples who agree to defer the age pension (to cover, say, just the last five years of an average life) something like ten years of support during the childbearing years.

Flexibility in allowing early access to superannuation, in return for later uptake ages at the ends of careers, is also an option that should be considered.

The key points are that policies should empower parents as much as possible, and that special care should be taken that they do not disadvantage homemakers who are living according to the most widely held ideal.

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