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

Executive summary

In 2009-10, almost two-thirds of Australian mothers of children aged under 15 years were employed. This employment rate remains below that of many other OECD countries, indicating that there may be potential for increases in maternal employment in Australia. This research was designed to provide insights on the factors that contribute to some mothers being less engaged in the labour market than others, in particular to examine to what extent mothers who are out of employment are not employed because of a preference to be at home, or because of barriers to employment imposed by their own or family characteristics.

The analyses are based on the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, a panel survey of Australian households, using the responses of mothers with children aged under 15 years. The primary focus of the research is on how characteristics of mothers vary according to different measures of employment participation, relationship status and age of youngest child. Characteristics examined include mothers' birth and work history, labour force characteristics, socio-demographic characteristics (e.g., education, number and age of children, and health status), self-perceptions (of personal autonomy), social supports and values. To measure employment participation, employment status at the survey date was analysed, as well as measures of employment participation derived from the HILDA employment calendar data, in which information about mothers' employment over the course of a year is captured. Most of the analyses are based Wave 11 (collected in 2011), though earlier waves of data are also used.

The report presents four main sets of analyses. One is an overview of trends in maternal employment. The second is analyses of the characteristics of lone and couple mothers (and families) according to the measures of employment participation derived from the calendar data. The third is analyses of characteristics of non-employed mothers, comparing those with younger children (up to 5 years) to those with older children (6 to 14 years). The fourth is analyses of characteristics of non-employed mothers at one wave (Wave 10) of HILDA, according to whether they were employed in the following wave (Wave 11). In this section, data from earlier waves were used when they had not been collected in Wave 10. Some key findings from these analyses are summarised below, drawing on the findings from across these different sets of analyses.

Employment of lone and couple mothers by age of youngest child

As calculated from HILDA, the employment rate of mothers with children aged under 15 years was 62% in 2011. For lone mothers, the employment rate was 56% and for couple mothers the employment rate was 64%. The gap in lone and couple mothers' employment rates was greatest for mothers of children aged under 3 years (26% employed for lone mothers and 46% employed for couple mothers) or aged 3 to 5 years (44% employed for lone mothers and 63% employed for couple mothers). For mothers whose youngest child was aged 6 to 9 years, 67% of lone mothers were employed and 74% of couple mothers were employed. For mothers whose youngest child was aged 10 to 14 years, 74% of lone mothers were employed and 83% of couple mothers were employed.

Socio-demographic characteristics and maternal employment

Mothers with a stronger attachment to work (as evidenced by their time spent in employment in the previous financial year) had different personal and family socio-demographic characteristics to those with a weaker attachment to work. This was also apparent when the characteristics of non-employed mothers who did and did not enter employment over a period of two years were compared. Also, differences were apparent for non-employed mothers with younger rather than older children.

Educational attainment of mothers was one factor that varied across the different groups compared, with lower levels of educational attainment among mothers with less connection to employment, among those who did not transition into employment over two waves of HILDA, and among non-employed mothers with older rather than younger children.

For some mothers, non-employment was a continuation of weaker connection to employment, even from the time before they became mothers. For example, spending more time out of employment in the previous financial year was associated with mothers having started childbearing at an earlier age, and having been less likely to be employed in the year before having a first child.

Having caring responsibilities for someone due to their ill health, disability or old age was related to lower levels of engagement in paid work. In particular, caring for others appears to be a feature of non-employed mothers with older children. Mothers with caring responsibilities were under-represented among those who transitioned from non-employment to employment over two waves of HILDA.

Health status was also an important factor for both lone and couple mothers, with poorer health among those who had been out of employment for all or most of the previous year, and also poorer health among the non-employed mothers with older, compared to younger, children. The importance of health status is apparent, for example, with 36% of lone mothers with little or no time in employment in the previous year reporting to have a long-term health condition.

In relation to country of birth and language, the key findings related to mothers born overseas with poor English language proficiency being over-represented among those with lower levels of engagement in paid work.

The presence of caring responsibilities and health concerns were also related by some mothers as being reasons for their not looking for work, though these reasons were less often given than were those related to caring for children.

Self-perceptions, social supports, work-family attitudes and maternal employment

Mothers' mental health, perceptions of social support, beliefs in personal autonomy and work-family attitudes were examined in these analyses. Mental health is measured in HILDA with questions from the Short Form Health Survey. Perceptions of social support are measured by respondents' agreement or otherwise to statements such as having someone to lean on in times of trouble, or having an unmet demand for help. Beliefs in personal autonomy are likewise measured by respondents' agreement or otherwise to statements such "I can do just about anything I really set my mind to" and "I often feel helpless in dealing with the problems of life". Work-family attitudes are assessed using responses about agreement on items such as "Mothers who don't really need the money shouldn't work" and "Children do just as well if the mother earns the money and the father cares for the home and the children".

Mothers who had spent less of the previous year in employment tended to have poorer mental health and to have more perceived difficulties with social supports. Also, non-employed lone mothers, compared to couple mothers, were much more likely have had difficulties with social supports. There were some differences in beliefs in personal autonomy across the employment groupings, but these differences were more apparent for couple mothers, with those having been employed for little/none of the previous year having lower beliefs in personal autonomy than others. With regard to work-family attitudes, views tended to be more aligned with "traditional" values among mothers with a lesser connection to employment. Such attitudes, of course, may have been shaped by past employment patterns, such as having had a relatively long period of time out of the labour market while undertaking a caring role. Expressed values may also be based upon mothers' future plans or expectations regarding employment.

While these data do not allow us to say that lower levels of mental health, social supports or autonomy, or traditional work-family values, cause lower rates of participation in employment by lone mothers, they do suggest the presence of personal characteristics that could result in relatively low levels of confidence or motivation, which may deter mothers from attempting to enter employment.

Different socio-demographic characteristics of lone and couple mothers

The characteristics of lone and couple mothers are relevant to their differences in employment participation. For example, lone mothers had lower educational levels, older children, were more often Australian-born and were younger than couple mothers. Lone mothers had poorer (self-reported) health, and were more likely than couple mothers to have a long-term health condition. Couple mothers had significantly better mental health and more positive beliefs in personal autonomy than lone mothers. Lone mothers were more likely than couple mothers to report having difficulties with social supports.

Labour force characteristics

Mothers are often not in paid work because they have very young children to care for, and indeed, for mothers of the youngest children, they are facilitated to remain out of employment through the provision of parental leave. Detailed labour force information provides insights on the degree to which mothers want to be working, and their reasons for not working.

Being unemployed indicates than non-employed mothers are actively looking for work and available to start work. While most non-employed mothers are not unemployed (they are instead classified as "not in the labour force"), non-employed lone mothers were more likely to be unemployed than couple mothers. Also, non-employed mothers of older children were more likely to be unemployed when compared to non-employed mothers of younger children.

The majority of non-employed mothers are not in the labour force, rather than unemployed. Many report that they do not want to work, though this differs considerably by relationship status as 57% of non-employed couple mothers and 38% of lone mothers did not want a job.

Even if mothers indicated that they would like to be working, they often reported that they were not looking for work because they were caring for children. The mothers showing the least desire to be working were couple mothers with children aged up to 5 years old, though a large proportion of mothers who were not employed with a youngest child aged 6 to 14 years still referred to caring responsibilities in their reasons for not looking for work.

In analysing transitions over two waves of HILDA, those who moved into employment had been more attached to the labour market in the previous year, through undertaking direct job search and/or being available to work.


Overall, the most significant associations with maternal employment throughout these analyses were in relation to age of youngest child, mothers' health status and level of educational attainment. Non-employed mothers with older children, and lone mothers who were not employed seemed to have the greatest barriers to employment as indicated by characteristics such as education and health status. While some groups of mothers appear to be faced with more barriers to employment than others, the significance of caring for young children was apparent throughout these analyses for mothers with varying degrees of attachment to employment.