Women in developed economies are working more than ever before as they “juggle” (favourite description) paid jobs in the market with domestic work and child-rearing. A report, Reality Check, by Women’s Forum Australia shows that Australia is no exception to the trend for women to suffer work-life conflict as a result of their dual role. Here, Misty de Vries of WFA explains to MercatorNet exactly why life is so fraught in the Lucky Country and what can be done about it.

Mercatornet: How serious is work life conflict for Australian women? Is it worse than for women elsewhere in the OECD?

Misty de Vries: In Australia, women reported higher frequency of work life conflict than men. 46% of women (in our survey) reported conflict a lot, almost always or constantly, compared with 36% of men. This could be due to the fact that overall, women spend 78 hours per week on paid and unpaid work compared to 73 hours for men. Women also experience more emotional impact from work life conflict – over half feeling rushed, pressured and exhausted.

Comparisons within the OECD were outside the scope of our research, but women in our survey did make reference to more favourable policies for women in some parts of Europe, in relation to paid parental leave and access to childcare.

Mercatornet: What are the major consequences of this conflict for women?

Misty de Vries: Over half of our respondents said they reduced personal care, exercise or leisure because of time constraints due to work life conflict.

Delaying or not having children, despite the desire to have them, was a major impact of work life conflict: 47% had curtailed family desires, 16% had delayed having children and 18% did not have children, sometimes as a consequence of not having time for relationships. One respondent remarked: “I cannot see how I could manage to have children and afford to pay the bills. I have decided not to have kids.” Another said: “I am not sure about having another child. I have just returned to work after my first and I am seriously thinking about not having another one because I am finding work like balance to be difficult at the moment.”
Around half of women forgo opportunities in the paid workforce, 45% of women reduce work (and income) or delay their career. For 35%, study is sacrificed and for 32%, their voluntary work.

Mercatornet: Among those women who experience the most conflict, what are the significant factors? Is marital status one of them?

Misty de Vries: A common response from women was that they didn’t have adequate support at home for domestic duties or parenting. The number of hours that women contribute to the household and parenting is still far higher than men’s contribution, as women are seen as the primary care giver. Naturally, for single mothers, it is worse. But other significant factors were very diverse. Outside of the workplace these included having young or many children; being well-educated; having health problems or tight financial circumstances; or coming from a cultural and linguistically diverse background. Inside the workplace, they included working long, unsocial or un-preferred hours; long commuting times; and having an unsupportive work culture or inflexible work practices.

Mercatornet: You report that women on average work harder, or at least longer, than men — was this a big issue for the women you surveyed and interviewed? What did they want from their husbands in this regard — a 50:50 split of domestic work, or something else?

Misty de Vries: Our research does suggest that women work harder overall than men, spending 78 hours per week on paid and unpaid work compared to 73 hours for men. This is consistent with official time use data which reports that mothers of children under 15 provide around two and a half hours a day extra work compared to fathers. This work is worth over $13,000 a annum if valued at $15 an hour.

When specifically asked what domestic changes would help reduce work life stress, the majority (85%) saw being able to get regular breaks for exercise/leisure as the most preferred solution. 71% mentioned outsourcing some domestic tasks.

Coming in third was the desire for their partner to help more with domestic work. There was no specific mention in the survey about a 50: 50 split, just a fairer share of time from men and more responsibility for tasks. Respondents also wanted more input from their partner in parenting and childcare (57%) and more help from their own children with domestic work (52%).

Some 62% of women thought that talking to their partner about ways to better share domestic tasks and parenting would reduce their stress. Despite these findings, 77% of women believed that changing their expectations of themselves was the best way to reduce work life stress. This rated above reducing or changing work hours and getting more domestic help.

Mercatornet: Research in the UK has shown that women tend to fall into one of three groups, defined by their work preferences: about 20% are career-oriented and will have few if any children; another 20% are home-oriented and don’t want to work outside it; and the rest either want part-time work or will do it if necessary to supplement family income. Did your research show this kind of pattern? Or some other?

Misty de Vries: Our research found that nearly half (47%) of women had curtailed family desires because of the impact of work life stress. There was no indication that this outcome was because they were “career oriented”; many cited financial stress as the main reasons. One respondent remarked: “Due to current costs I can’t reduce my working hours but would dearly love to.” Other respondents said: “I previously worked a four-day week to get some time with my son, but financial pressures as well as office workload meant returning to full time,” and, “When you are single with 3 children your choices are taken away.”

Moreover, nearly half (45%) reduced or delayed work; they did not state this was because they wanted to forego their careers – many said it was a necessary sacrifice in order to meet their obligations as parents. In our survey, one woman said: “I was unable to work out how to raise my children and maintain a good relationship with my husband, maintain my physical health and afford to live. So together we chose for him to earn (his income is much higher) and me to be primary parent carer.”

Our literature review also suggested that the factors which lead to different outcomes are more complex than simply women’s preferences. Work life conflict is a symptom of women being obstructed and frustrated in achieving their many diverse goals, suggesting the mix of outcomes is currently sub-optimal and results from social constructs that require change, as well as different responses from women as they try to find balance. The body of evidence concludes that women undertake less paid work than men and more unpaid work due in part to multiple goals, but also to entrenched societal bias and direct discrimination. Thus neither our findings nor the body of evidence support the UK research.

Mercatornet: To what extent does the general direction of Australian Government (and Opposition) policy reflect women’s actual preferences? What’s driving the current emphasis?

Misty de Vries: There are three key policy areas: paid parental leave; flexible workplaces and childcare solutions. In the 2009-2010 Budget, the Australian Government undertook to provide 18 weeks paid postnatal leave paid at the federal minimum wage ($544 per week in May 2009). The objectives of the scheme are to: support families; promote longer term workforce connection and hence participation for women; and enhance early childhood health, cognitive and emotional development by enabling mothers (or fathers) to stay home with their newborn children.

In addition the Federal Opposition leader has announced a six month paid parental leave scheme at full pay, to provide parents with more financial security and the time they need to bond with their newborn.

Our research suggests that paid parental leave is perceived as an important part of a multi-faceted approach to achieving work life balance – short term connection to children (including by fathers) and long term enhanced workplace connection for women. This is welcomed by the two-thirds of women who had previously gone without paid maternity leave in Australia.

The great majority of those we surveyed (80%) want flexible workplace practices. On January 1, as part of the National Employment Standard under the Fair Work Act 2009, provisions were put in place that give people the right to request flexible work practices. A similar entitlement in the UK has led to more requests being granted.

Our survey found the following preferences regarding government assistance with childcare: tax deductibility of childcare costs (72%); more work-based childcare centres (66%); and a bigger subsidy to make all forms of childcare cheaper (64%) were the solutions most preferred by our respondents.

Government initiatives to alleviate the costs of childcare have already been found to enhance workforce participation, which is the government’s aim. Despite this, the interaction of childcare assistance and other welfare measures can lead to high effective marginal tax rates for some women. Women’s Forum suggests that, to redress these tax anomalies and to ensure equitability in childcare and consumer choice, all forms of childcare should attract the same assistance and should be tax deductible.

Mercatornet: Is your government giving adequate recognition to the social capital contributed by parents?

Misty de Vries: The Australian Government provides various means tested family benefits (including Family Tax Benefit and the Baby Bonus), to assist families with the cost of raising their dependent children. These two benefits provide considerable support for many families. However, we took up the call of survey respondents that an extension of income splitting for taxation purposes would further recognise the social capital contributed by parents and increase choices in family units regarding who works which hours.

Mercatornet: The Australian Family Association published a survey recently showing that two thirds of Australians think that, instead of paid parental leave just for mums in paid work, government should provide equal funding to all mothers when they have a baby. What does your research suggest?

Misty de Vries: Women’s Forum Australia seeks solutions that minimise harm, optimise choices, and are sustainable and equitable. Time use data suggest that mothers who also work in paid employment provide the most hours of paid and unpaid work of any demographic group. Our policy recommendations thus support paid parental leave as well as the Baby Bonus, tax-deductibility of childcare and extension of Family Tax Benefit Part B into comprehensive income splitting arrangements.

There is no need for an ‘either-or’ trade off. Removing paid parental leave from the mix would be socially costly and sub-optimal as the net benefits of PPL have been demonstrated from the many schemes now available worldwide. Australia remains the only country in the OECD without PPL, and it is exciting for families and for women that PPL now has bipartisan support in this country.

Mercatornet: Are companies beginning to take a responsible attitude to family life? How important is this issue relative to government’s role in fostering work life balance?

Misty de Vries: Various studies show that introducing flexible work practices has a number of advantages for employers as well as for workers and that the great majority of employers see this. Our survey found that 80% of respondents wanted to have access to more flexible work hours, or other flexible work practices (79%). This is consistent with findings from the Centre for Work and Life in Adelaide.

Overall, our research suggests that there has been great improvement in workplace practices that support work life balance. However, flexibility in work arrangements in Australia can still improve. There can be particular problems for culturally and linguistically diverse Australians, and women have poorer access to flexible practices and career progression opportunities than men. One in five Australian pregnant women engaged in the paid workforce report discrimination – including missed training opportunities, inappropriate comments and other career detriment.

* Note on the survey: Women’s Forum Australia conducted a survey with 956 respondents. Of 945 respondents who disclosed sex and age, 886 or 93.8% were women and 63% were aged 25-44 (the main child bearing and raising years).

Misty de Vries is a spokeswoman for Women’s Forum Australia.