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Mothers on the run: Despite more hours at work, there’s always more to do at home


Dramatic changes in working patterns have taken place in the UK, particularly in the rise of women in employment. Three quarters of households now have dual incomes, but women still take responsibility for most of the housework, according to research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Despite institutional and legislative changes intended to reduce inequality and improve work-life balance, women are still finding themselves working long hours at home and at work and, for their trouble, generally receive less pay than their male equivalents. The project, carried out by Doctor Susan Harkness, Department of Economics, University of Bristol, studied the changes in female employment in the UK since the 1970s, a field that has seen little previous research. It focused on: working hours; times of work; income and wage premiums; and unpaid work such as, housework and childcare.

As improved wage opportunities for women have emerged in recent decades, more and more married women have taken up paid employment. In 2002, 70% of working age women who were in employment, a rise of 10% since 1979 and, over the same period, employment rates for mothers with pre-school children almost doubled. In contrast, the number of men in employment and the hours that they work has fallen.

“Despite recent progress, there remain employment inequalities between men and women. For example, less qualified women don’t earn as much and are less likely to work full time than comparably qualified men,” said Susan Harkness.

“However, the pay gap is much narrower between men and women with degrees and there is some good news for less skilled women. They’ve seen the largest improvement in their relative labour market position, but it’s still women who’re doing most of the housework, regardless of qualifications.”

Despite men apparently working less, it is predominantly women who take time off to look after sick children, including 60% of women who earn the same or more then their partners. Working mothers with children put twice as many hours into housework as their partners despite the possibility of ‘role reversal’ in earnings. Housework is more evenly split in dual income households, especially when women earn as much or more than their partners and have no children. Of course, more affluent couples are able to afford to reduce their domestic burdens through hired help and by acquiring labour saving devices.

The pressures are really on for mothers working full time in dual earner couples and for single parents who work full time. Both long working hours, the burden of unpaid housework and childcare responsibilities have increased the time pressures for many women. The constraints that these pressures put on the energies of working women, particularly mothers, is seen to be holding back their earning power. Being on the run with work and family commitments provides little opportunity to concentrate on the actions necessary for career progression.

“Some of the newly introduced policies aimed at improving work-life balance, such as paternity leave, will help redress current imbalances,” said Susan Harkness. “But others, like the new rights of full time carers to request flexible working conditions, are likely, in my view, to reinforce current gender divisions in housework - because carers are usually women.”

Much has been said and written about work-life balance and this research adds further evidence for this debate. Some of Europe’s longest hours at work for parents in full time employment, and housework and childcare responsibilities taken on by working mothers has lead to increased time pressures for many people. Breaking this cycle cannot be achieved by legislation alone and may require a complete cultural re-think.

Becky Gammon | alfa
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