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Family Matters No. 36 - December 1993

Family facts: Families and the labour force

'In Australia there are now 3.5 million women in the labour force, and just over 2 million of these are married women.' (Women and work : an overview. In: Women and work: issues for the 1990s / Women's Advisory Council, 1991.)

In the 1930s, marriage meant an end to the working careers of most women, but this situation has gradually changed, as Table 1 shows.

Table 1. Labour Force Participation Rates of Married Women by Age Group, 1933-1991
Age 1933 1947 1961 1971 1981 1991
15-19 3.2 11.4 19.9 36.4 45.7 53.8
20-24 4.4 11.6 24.5 44.1 57.4 64.1
25-34 4.7 8.0 17.3 33.0 49.0 61.3
35-44 5.3 8.8 21.2 41.3 58.4 71.3
45-54 6.0 8.6 19.9 36.1 50.5 63.3
55-59 5.7 6.6 12.6 23.2 31.3 34.1
60-64 3.7 4.1 6.5 12.0 15.0 16.3

Sources: ABS, Australian Censuses, 1933-81; ABS, The Labour Force, June 1991 (6203.0).

Involvement of married women in the paid labour force gradually increased, with the sharpest rise occurring between 1961 and 1971 when restrictions on the employment of married women in the public sector were lifted. By 1991, two-thirds of married women in the peak labour force ages of 25-54 years were working.

Table 2. Women with Dependent Children: Labour Force Participation Rates and Percentage Employed Full-Time According to the Age of Youngest Child and Family Type, June 1993
Mothers in couple families with youngest child aged: Labour force participation rate % Of mothers employed full time %
0-4 47.1 35.0
5-9 66.0 40.5
10-14 72.5 48.0
15-24 70.3 55.0
Sole mothers with youngest child aged:    
0-4 33.4 37.8
5-9 55.1 43.2
10-14 63.3 61.3
15-24 69.8 71.5

Source: ABS, Labour Force Status and Other Characteristics of Families, June 1993 (6224.0)

Couples' Perspective

  • Of 1.991 million couples with dependent children in Australia, in June 1993, 52.5 per cent of couples had both partners employed.
  • In June 1993, in 10.8 per cent of all couples with dependent children no parent was employed.
  • Where both the husband and the wife were employed, they were both working full-time in 41.3 per cent of cases.
  • For women with dependent children, the percentage working full-time among those employed was 43.2. The percentage rises as the youngest child ages.
  • For women with dependent children, the degree of attachment to the labour force is related to the age of the youngest child. In couple families, the participation rate of women with a child aged less than five years is still below 50 per cent. Once the child reaches school age, however, participation rates for these women jump to about 70 per cent.

Sole Parents' Perspective

  • In June 1993, there were 416,200 one-parent families P 88.5 of these were headed by women.
  • A little under half of sole mothers were employed (42.7 per cent).
  • Where the sole mother was employed, 53.7 per cent were employed full-time.
  • In contrast, 65.3 per cent of sole fathers were employed and 89.1 of these were working full-time.

Children's Perspective

  • 51 per cent of children in couple families had both parents employed and 20 per cent had both parents employed full- time in June 1993.
  • Just over 430,000 dependent children representing 11 per cent of all dependent children in couple families had neither parent employed.
  • About 400,000 dependent children representing 58 per cent of children living in one-parent families did not have an employed parent.

Work and Family Responsibilities

Attempting to balance work and family life can be stressful for the worker and result in problems for the employer. Concerns about child care, sick children, other family dependents, and marital and family problems can increase absenteeism, lateness, and leaving early.

In March 1990, the Australian government announced the ratification of (ILO) Convention 156 which focuses on workers with family responsibilities and which came into effect on 30 March 1991 . It consists of nineteen Articles, which explain the document and outline measures to enable men and women with family responsibilities to balance family commitments with work place obligations.

AIFS Research

The Dependent Care Study, undertaken by the Institute for the Work and Family Unit of the Department of Industrial Relations, and jointly funded by the Unit and the Institute, provided national data on the extent to which family and work responsibilities overlap. Research found that: 

  • For preschool-aged children, half of the parents used informal care while 43 per cent used formal care. Few parents used formal care for school holidays or for after-school care of children under 14 years.
  • More than two-thirds of parents missed some work over the course of a year for reasons related to the care of their children, usually to care for a sick child (mothers 52 per cent, fathers 31 per cent).
  • About one in three parents took time off to look after children during school holidays.
  • In total, 58 per cent took some time off work over a 12-month period for a child or other family member.
  • The Early Childhood Study provided an opportunity to find out how the 591 working mothers had coped with the care of preschool children when they were sick during working hours. Results showed that mothers took the major role in the care of sick children, deciding how ill the child was, making arrangements and generally managing the situation.
  • Employer Attitudes Studies investigated the perceptions and response of employers in both small business and large organisations to the needs of workers with family responsibilities.
  • Small business employers are more likely to favour discretionary family benefits based on employee performance rather than mandated benefits
  • Employers in larger organisations are recognising that family and work are not mutually exclusive, and are considering ways to accommodate the needs of their workers while maintaining productivity.
  • Australian Living Standards Study. Chapters on employment in the Berwick and Box Hill Reports of the AIFS Australian Living Standards Study give a detailed and current picture of family work commitments.

Further AIFS Reading

  • AIFS (1990), Work and Family: An Important Business, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Brownlee, H. McDonald, P. (1993), 'Employment, unemployment and training', in McDonald, P. ed., Australian Living Standards Study: Berwick report. Part 1: Household Survey, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Glezer, H. (1988), Maternity Leave in Australia: Employee and Employer Experiences, AIFS Monograph No.7, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Ochiltree, G. and Greenblat E. (1991), Sick Children How Working Mothers Cope. AIFS Early Childhood Study Paper No.2, Australian Institute of Family Studies. Melbourne.
  • Vanden Heuvel, A. (1993), When Roles Overlap: Workers With Family Responsibilities, AIFS Monograph No.14, Work and Family Unit, Department of Industrial Relations, Canberra.
  • Vanden Heuvel, A., Brownlee, H. and McDonald, P. (1993). 'Employment, unemployment and training', in McDonald, P. ed., Australian Living Standards Study Box Hill Report, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Wolcott, 1. (1993), A Matter of Give and Take: Small Business Views of Work and Family, Melbourne, Vie: Australian Institute of Family Studies,1993.
  • Wolcott, I. (1991), Work and Family Employers' Views, AIFS Monograph No.11, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Wolcott, I. (1993), Work and Family, Monograph No.6, Affirmative Action Agency and Work and Family Unit, AGPS. Canberra.
  • See also articles by Don Edgar, Helen Glezer, Robyn Hartley, llene Wolcott and Audrey Vanden Heuvel in various issues of the Institute's magazine, Family Matters.