Australian mothers' participation in employment

Analyses of social, demographic and family characteristics using the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey
Research Paper No. 52 – November 2013

5. Discussion and conclusion

These analyses have highlighted several issues about maternal employment in Australia, contributing to the breadth of current literature on this topic.

One issue that stands out is the central role for mothers of caring. Many mothers, especially those with younger children, expressed a preference to not be working. Even if they indicated that they would like to be working, they often reported that they were not looking for work because of their caring responsibilities. Of course, the non-employed mothers with very young children included those who were on leave from their job. In analyses of transitions from non-employment to employment, these mothers (that is, those who reported they were not looking for work because they were on pregnancy/maternity leave) were well represented among those who moved into employment one year later.

Once children were school-aged, mothers appeared less constrained by their caring responsibilities or preferences to provide care for their children, though a large proportion of mothers who were not employed at this time still referred to caring responsibilities in their reasons for not looking for work.

For mothers, qualitative work has highlighted that decisions about the timing of return to work, and also the nature of that employment, are interwoven with mothers' views and preferences regarding the care of their children (Boyd, Thorpe, & Tayler, 2010; Hand, 2007). While survey data such as those collected in HILDA cannot easily inform on these complex decision-making processes, the role of caring for children has been clearly highlighted in these data.

Caring responsibilities also went beyond caring for young children, with some mothers caring for family members who were ill, were elderly or had a disability. This too seemed to constrain some mothers in their ability to be employed, consistent with previous research on the way in which caring responsibilities can limit employment (Edwards et al., 2008).

Maternal employment was associated with factors such as mothers' education and health status, which are well-known determinants of maternal employment (e.g., Austen & Seymour, 2006; Baxter, 2005; Baxter, 2012; Birch, 2003; Evans & Kelley, 2008; Gray et al., 2002; Parr, 2012; Renda, 2007). These factors were important generally in comparing levels of employment participation, and also, compared to couple mothers, lone mothers more often had those characteristics that were associated with lack of employment. This would contribute, then, to lone mothers' lower rates of employment. On the other hand, couple mothers had somewhat different characteristics that were also related to relatively low employment rates, in that they had a higher proportion with poor English-language proficiency.

Mothers with a greater connection to employment had higher education levels, and mothers who transitioned from non-employment into employment one year later also had higher education levels compared to those who remained not employed. Nevertheless, those with low education levels made up a significant proportion of those who transitioned into employment. This is an important reminder that lower education levels need not be a barrier to employment. Further, it is important to consider that mothers of all education levels are likely to take some time out of employment when they are caring for young children.

Past employment patterns varied across the groups compared in these analyses. Current employment attachment appeared to be related to a longer term as well as more recent history of being in paid employment. For some mothers, non-employment was likely to be a continuation of a weaker connection to employment, even from the time before they became mothers.

Non-employment had some association with physical health problems, as indicated by poor self-reported health and having a long-term health condition. Especially, their own illness, injury or disability was given as a reason for not looking for work by a very high proportion of lone mothers and non-employed mothers with older children. Also, poorer health status was more evident for non-employed mothers who did not transition into employment, when compared to those who did transition into employment.

The roles of mental health, self-perception, and perceived social supports in explaining patterns of maternal employment were apparent in these data. Poorer wellbeing on these different aspects were often found among those who had a weaker connection to employment, and was also found for lone compared to couple mothers.

Mothers' sense of personal autonomy was weaker than other variables in explaining patterns of maternal employment. However, overall, couple mothers had more positive beliefs in personal autonomy than lone mothers, and among non-employed mothers, those with older children had a lower sense of personal autonomy than those with younger children.

Mothers' attitudes or values about maternal employment had associations with patterns of employment and future transitions into employment. What we do not know is how these attitudes have been formed, and the extent to which they have been shaped by a particular history of labour force involvement. There is clearly scope for more analyses of these data, to further our understanding of the importance of these factors in explaining mothers' rates of participation in employment.

The focus of this paper was quite specific: looking at the characteristics of mothers according to their engagement in the labour market. As such, the purpose was not to use maternal or family characteristics to predict mothers' employment participation, as has been done elsewhere (e.g., Gray et al. 2006; Baxter & Renda, 2011; Parr, 2012). Nor was the purpose to examine the implications of maternal employment for maternal or other family outcomes.

These HILDA data offer the potential to more fully explore the links between maternal employment and maternal outcomes, especially mothers' wellbeing. The detailed employment data could also be used to broaden the scope of the research question to examine the nature of jobs in which mothers work; for example, comparing full-time and part-time jobs.

While quantitative work such as this cannot provide complete insights into the decision-making processes that women go through when contemplating whether or not to enter paid employment, these HILDA data have nevertheless proved to be useful in providing contextual information about the employment patterns of women from different backgrounds, and with different characteristics or attitudes.