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It’s Tough At The Top For High-Flying British Women


Women in Britain are happier with ‘non-traditional’ domestic arrangements, according to new Economic and Social Research Council funded research at City University. ‘Our findings contradict Neo-Conservative claims that women would be happier if they went back to being traditional housewives,’ says Professor Rosemary Crompton, who led the research. ‘The recipe for personal happiness, satisfaction with the family and lower stress at home seems to be a combination of liberal attitudes to work outside the home and a fairer division of household chores.’

The City University research, which looked at women’s lives in Britain and Portugal, is the latest stage in a comparative study of families, employment and work-life balance in Britain and Europe. The results show that work-life conflict is closely related to the way people work, for example the availability of part-time jobs and the culture of long working hours, as much as to gender politics.

In the UK the researchers found a marked correlation between women’s stress levels and their ambition. ‘Women who are climbing the professional or managerial ladder in Britain are expected to put in long working hours and they have limited access to good quality child-care and domestic help,’ says Rosemary Crompton. ‘In Portugal promotion for professional and managerial women means moving up through an ordered hierarchy. Such women also have shorter working hours than similar women in Britain, and wider access to paid domestic help.’

In contrast, work-life conflict was higher amongst Portuguese women in routine or manual jobs than amongst their British counterparts. ‘It is hardly surprising because many Portuguese women with a child of under 15 put in over 68 hours a week in paid work and housework. In Britain, however, only 29% of women in this group work full-time.’

Professor Crompton says there are signs that the gender revolution has stalled. ‘Women often have fewer choices and less flexibility as they climb the employment ladder. At the same time family money management has not become more egalitarian and men’s contribution to housework seems to have reached a plateau since the 1980s.’

The findings draw on data from a work-life conflict scale developed by the researchers. Men and women in five EU countries included in this study were asked a series of simple questions including how often they came home from work “too tired to do domestic chores” and how often they found it difficult to “concentrate at work because of family commitments.” They were also asked about the division of domestic labour and managing the family budget. The resulting data was interpreted in the context of national policies on employment and family support as well as social and cultural variations.

The research also involved a survey of attitudes to family life, in which participants were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as: “A job is all right but what most women really want is a home and children,” “People who have never had children lead empty lives,” “All in all, family life suffers when the woman has a full-time job,” or ‘Watching children grow up is life’s greatest joy.” The results revealed that despite their high level of full-time employment, Portuguese women (and men) were much more family oriented than women in Britain and significantly more likely to think that both children and family life will suffer if a mother goes out to work.

The results showed that the level of work-life conflict was significantly lower in Finland and Norway, where two-earner families receive generous support. However, French women, who also benefit from relatively good state child-care provision, reported higher levels of work-life conflict than in the Scandinavian countries. One reason for this was the lower level of help with the housework provided by their partners. ‘This suggests that there is no quick fix to make people happy,’ says Professor Crompton. ‘Our results suggest that although universal measures (particularly reductions in working hours) would improve the potential for work-life balance, strategies will also have to be adapted to meet particular national circumstances and traditions of domestic arrangements.

Alexandra Saxon | alfa
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