Women, work and family responsibilities


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Content type
Family Matters article

April 1991


The author discusses findings from the Australian Institute of Family Studies' Becoming Adult Study which suggest that it is young women rather than young men who are making the major adjustments to the demands of employment and having children. The Study, conducted in 1990, interviewed 138 young women and men who were first interviewed some eight years ago as part of the Children in Families Study. Questions on employment, children and future plans were included in the interview schedule.

Robyn Hartley, AIFS Fellow, discusses findings from the Institute's Becoming Adult Study which suggest that it is young women rather than young men who are making the major adjustments to the demands of employment and having children

The social changes associated with significant increases in the number of mothers in paid employment are well known. They include a general climate which recognises women's demands for greater independence and autonomy, and economic necessity in both two-parent and single-parent families. These structural factors are very strong influences on behaviour. However, as with all social change, if we look at the shift in patterns of women's paid employment at another level, change is also the result of individual women, single or with partners and frequently together with a partner, making decisions about work and family responsibilities. Many personal factors (such as attitudes to work and child rearing), as well as broad social influences, come into play.

Most of our general information and the more formal research studies concerning work and families focus on current needs and problems of workers who are employed and already have children. How, though, do young adults who are not yet in this situation see their futures in terms of work and family responsibilities?

Decisions about whether or not to seek employment in the early years of child rearing are often determined by economic necessity. However, attitudes, expectations and, in some cases, specific plans about work and family responsibilities develop long before people actually face such a situation, and the foundations may be laid down quite early in life. A young person's experience of family life, of parents who are in paid employment or not, the attitudes of others around them, may all contribute to views about young working mothers.

Many studies have established that adolescent girls and young women regard work as important and that they expect to be employed after the birth of children. As yet, however, there has been little research on how young people, both males and females, actually expect to combine work and family responsibilities.

AIFS Becoming Adult Study

The Institute's Becoming Adult Study provides information about how a group in their early twenties view their futures in terms of being employed and having children. The 138 young women and men in this study were first interviewed some eight years ago as part of the the Institute's Australian Children in Families study. Half of the original group of 15- -16 year-olds were then living with two natural parents and half were living in single- parent families or stepfamilies. The Becoming Adult Study, conducted in 1990, followed up the group to see how they had constructed adult lives for themselves. Questions on employment, children and future plans were included in the interview.

Generalisations from this group to a wider population must be treated with caution because the group was originally selected specifically to include an over- representation of children from single-parent and stepfamilies. However, analysis so far shows that family type at age 16 does not have a systematic effect on the attitudes and expectations discussed here, so it is likely that their experiences will be valid for many young adults.

Expectations for the Future

Most of the young people (85 percent) thought that they would have children (or more children) in the future; only 4 per cent said they would not have children and 11 per cent were unsure. The percentage of males and females who thought they would have children was similar. However, young women liked to keep their options open, being more likely than men to say they were not sure about having children, and less likely than men to say they would definitely not have children in the future.

As most of the young adults were aged 23-24 years, they had lived through adolescence and their early twenties in a period marked by increasing workforce participation of married women. Indeed, during the 1980s, the group which increased its participation to the greatest extent was married women with school-age children (Maas 1990). Respondents in the Becoming Adult Study were asked what they thought the likely pattern of their lives would be in five and ten years' time. The options they were given all related to various combinations of having or not having children, being employed full-time, part-time, intermittently or not at all, and study.

In the Institute study, there were clear differences between women's and men's responses to the question of future life patterns; there were also differences between the expected patterns for each sex for the two time points of five and ten years. Despite changes in the patterns of employment for women with children, young men entering the phase of having children were not expecting that the pattern of their lives would change much from the male work/family patterns of the past; the great majority expected that in the forseeable future they would have children and be working full-time. Part-time work and children was not seen as a male option in five or ten years' time. On the other hand, young women expected both that employment of some sort would play a significant part in their lives and that they would opt for, or have to accept, various alternative ways of combining employment and having children.

Looking five years into the future, more than half the women (58 per cent) and a little over a third of the men (36 per cent) believed their lives would involve some combination of employment and children by the time they were 28 or 29 years. Looking ten years into the future (at age 33 or 34), three in every four women (75 per cent) and more than four in every five men (85 per cent) thought this would be so.

So the majority of young women saw their futures combining some form of employment with bearing and rearing children. The figures also reflect the later age at which men have children - only a little over a third of the men in the group saw themselves as having children and working by about age 28, but 85 per cent believed that five years later they would have children and be employed. No men envisaged having children and not being employed, so the 85 per cent corresponds to the percentage of men who thought they would have children.

However, just as important as these different expectations is the much greater diversity for women than for men. Young women expected full-time employment with no children, full-time employment with children, part-time employment with children, and interrupted periods of employment combined with children over a period of time. In contrast, 90 per cent of men recognised only two options - full-time work with no children (59 per cent) and full- time work with children (31 per cent).

Thus, looking at anticipated patterns over a ten-year period, there was a decided shift in male expectations - 78 per cent expected full-time work and children, compared with only 31 per cent who expected this five years into the future. Fewer women than men (only 17 percent) saw full- time work and children as an option, and there was a corresponding increase in the percentage of women who thought they would be working part-time with children or combining work and children in some other way. Again, differences between young women and men were highly statistically significant: women were much more likely than men to expect interrupted employment or no employment with children; men were much more likely than women to expect ongoing employment with children.

Summarising the comparison between anticipated patters in five and ten years' time, nearly half of the men interviewed expected full-time work (or study) with no children in five years and full-time work with children in ten years. For women, the most common pattern was ongoing work with children in both five and ten years' time; however, less than a quarter of the young women expected this. Almost as many young women expected that they would have interrupted work patterns and no children in five years' time followed by interrupted work and children in ten years' time, or interrupted work and children in five years' time followed by interrupted work and children in ten years' time.

Attitudes to Work

The capacity and opportunity to earn a living and be financially independent are accepted as an important aspect of becoming adult, although it should be remembered that until relatively recently this was one of those statements accepted as generally true but which actually applied much more to men than to women (for whom becoming adult often meant leaving paid work, entering marriage and becoming financially dependent on a husband).

Overall, 81 per cent of young men and women were in paid employment and 88 per cent of these were in full-time work. This is consistent with the total labour force participation rate of 84 per cent for 23 year-olds in Australia (ABS 1990). Nearly two-thirds of those not in paid employment were women, half of these because they were looking after their children.

Respondents were asked what paid work meant to them - the part it played in their lives. Not surprisingly, the financial aspects of work were most frequently mentioned - by over two-thirds of the men and half of the women. Work meant security, a source of income, a living, survival, money coming in consistently.

Most people were reasonably positive about their work. Approximately one-third of both women and men said that they enjoyed work, found it interesting, challenging, satisfying or fun, and a small number of people mentioned specific enjoyable aspects of their jobs. Other positive responses were the social aspects of work, the opportunities work provided for learning and gaining experience, career and future prospects, and the 'adult' nature of work which brought responsibility and independence.

On the other hand, about one-third of the men and nearly 20 per cent of the women said that work meant 'just a job', or they referred only to financial aspects of work. This pattern was most marked for men in unskilled jobs and least marked for women and men whose jobs were categorised as 'managerial and professional'.

About one in three people mentioned work as providing the greatest pressure in their lives because of the stressful nature of the job, their relationships with the employer, or pressures on them to succeed.

How Young Mothers Cope

In the last issue of Family Matters, Ilene Wolcott (1990) outlined the potential conflicts and stresses in the management of work and family responsibilities. In the present issue of the magazine, Gay Ochiltree discusses a matter rarely publicly acknowledged, that is, how families handle situations when children are sick.

Wider public discussion of these issues and of government and community services and action which are required suggest that young adults are likely to have a fairly realistic view of what's involved in having children and being an employed parent. In addition, a high proportion of young people have grown up in a family where both parents are employed or with a single parent who is employed, and their attitudes towards employment and the responsibilities of children will be shaped by this.

However, juggling work and family responsibilities is a bit like marriage or living with someone - you never really know what it's like until you are in the situation. Living in a family isn't necessarily an adequate preparation for having a family of one's own, living in a family where both parents or a sole parent works doesn't necessarily make the problems easier when you are the parent. Young women in the Becoming Adult Study frequently mentioned the totally unexpected and very pervasive demands which having children placed on them.

Consistent with the different future patterns for women and men in relation to work and family responsibilities, the responses of mothers (but not fathers) to the question 'what does work mean to you at present?' were different from the rest of the group. They reflected a variety of opinions, including ambivalence concerning motherhood and paid employment, the importance of being at home with children and satisfaction in part-time work which gave a measure of independence. At the time of interview, none of the women with children was in full-time paid employment, reflecting both the difficulties of being so, and personal beliefs that taking care of children was the most important consideration.

It should be noted that this is a group of relatively young mothers and includes early school leavers, some having left school after Year 10 and others after completing Year 11 and Year 12. Some were satisfied with their level of education; others had begun or were planning further education and training. However, most did not have high educational qualifications or professional training, and their current employment status reflects this.

'Viv' left school at the end of Year 11 and has one child. She is typical of many young women who see a future combining increased parenting responsibilities and the need for further training. She was employed full- time until the birth of her daughter and has recently started a job for several hours a week. These are the rewards she gets from it:

'I love it, it's great. It means a bit of a break from the house. Some extra money per week and a chance at doing something for yourself. A bit of independence because I'm earning money and helping out, plus I can do things that I want to do with the money.'

She leaves her daughter with a friend on the day she works and reciprocates by minding the friend's child sometimes. The constant demands of parenthood are the greatest pressure in her life at present, but she has applied to do a part-time course next year, with the ultimate aim of getting employment in a new area.


Support and practical help from her mother who lives close by are crucial to 'Julie', who, with her mother, leases a mixed business. She has two toddlers and would like to have more. Because they live on the premises and her husband is around because he can't find employment in his trade at present, it's usually possible to juggle the demands of the children and the shop although Julie has the major responsibility for cooking and housework. The greatest pressure in her life at present is trying to be 'a wife, mother, housewife and business woman', but she finds her work satisfying:

'I'm doing something with my life. I'm not just sitting on the couch watching "Days of Our Lives". It gives me something to do and I can mix with other people. I love that. It's a hard slog but it's rewarding.'


The demands of work and children had become too much for 'Susan' and she is enjoying just being with her two children. Having been employed since she left school at age 15, apart from brief periods when the children were born, she was very happy to stop work now that the family's financial situation has improved slightly:

'Work was a pain in the neck. I went back to my job as a cleaner after my second child was born and found it too hard. You worked weekends as well, and it was a really long day.'

Susan's mother, who lives relatively close by, is her main child-minder but as she and Susan's stepfather are retired and occasionally go travelling, a sister-in-law acts as stand- by. 'Money and kids' are Susan's greatest worry at present.


'Karen' has found a way of organising study, employment and child care with the help of a friend. She has a four year-old daughter and has been separated from her husband for about three years. Until recently, she was studying full- time at a college in order to get qualifications, but she had to change to part-time study because of health problems and at present works part-time. She says of her employment:

'I really like my job in the hotel but it's not what I want to do forever. It means an income as well as a sense of satisfaction and to get out of the house sometimes. It means a lot.'

Recently Karen arranged to share her house with a friend who doesn't pay board but pays half the bills and food and babysits for her, including times when she has to work at night.


'Wendy' has had only intermittent part-time employment because she had the first of her two children soon after leaving school. Her relationship is a bit shaky and becoming independent is very important to her. She has just completed a part-time commercial studies course. 'I worry a lot about having to pay the bills and find enough money to get clothes and things for the children. Getting a job will help.' Work to her means:

'... something I can do for myself, something I can bring home and say I earned this, this is mine. It will give me a lot of satisfaction to know that all my hard work at College is worth while. Last year I was at the College nearly every day for half a day, with lots of homework, but I got it done.'

If she is lucky enough to get a job, a friend will mind her children. 'We were going to look into Family Day Care, but the older child went a couple of years ago and she hated going to this woman's house and it just put me off.'


After her husband left, 'Brenda' wanted to supplement her Sole Parent Pension but, like many women, she was reluctant to have someone else mind her children. Working as a Family Day Care giver, minding children in her home, seemed to be the answer. While it worked for a while, she eventually gave it up because of the long hours and because her children were learning 'bad habits' from some of the children she was minding. Although she would like a job, she would prefer to wait until her youngest child is at school. Regarding work, she says:

'You have your own independence if you're working. It's something I haven't given much thought to because my eldest is just at school. I would like to do a computer course so I could go back to work if I wanted to.'

It can be seen that work is an important part of the lives of these young mothers and that they placed great reliance on friends and family for child care, particularly their own mothers when they live close by. Family Day Care is the only form of formally organised child care any of them has used. This has been a highly successful arrangement for some families, with positive outcomes for children. The comments of concern from both a user and a provider reflect the importance these mothers placed on satisfactory arrangements for their children.

Making Decisions

The Becoming Adult Study did not specifically explore the processes by which young adults came to make decisions about work and family responsibilities. However, some considerations are apparent. One is the importance of employment for some women with children because it gives a measure of independence, a sense of achievement and opportunities to interact with others in a recognised role of responsibility. Some of the limiting factors in young women's decisions are also clear, for example, Susan's decision to give up heavy, tiring and unsatisfying work when the family's financial situation stabilised, and Wendy's decision not to use Family Day Care because she believed it would have a negative effect on her children.

Several of the conclusions of a recent English study (Prendergast 1988) are relevant when thinking about the personal factors contributing to and shaping young women's decisions about workforce participation and children. This study clearly showed that adolescent girls' views and beliefs about 'working mothers' and their own plans for the future were part of a complex set of personal beliefs about parenthood and children's needs, strongly influenced by the practices of those around them, including their own mothers. For the most part, these views reflected beliefs that a pattern of working until the baby was born, staying at home with the young child and then returning to part-time work was necessary, inevitable and in some ways 'natural'. Prendergast's point is that this is not just a learned and repeated acceptance of what everybody does; it has a philosophy behind it based on beliefs about what is best for the child and what it means to be a 'good mother'. Such a philosophy supports continuation of the current reality for many women. Prendergast concludes that: 'The paradox is that more women want to work, will have to work and probably will work for an increasingly longer proportion of their working lives, but the ways in which girls perceive this as being done are likely to trap them into a self- defining cycle of women's work as intermittent, casual and low grade.'

Young women with children continue to remain in or re- enter the workforce and they do so for a complex set of reasons. They are both responding to and helping to shape changes in social attitudes; many do so because they can't afford not to. However, within the limits of personal and community resources available to them (and often these are few), they are also making personal decisions based on their own experience and the experiences of those around them, and on the basis of a more or less clearly articulated set of values about motherhood, parenthood, children's needs and the nature of 'women's work'.

We need to know more about the expectations of young women and men concerning how they will combine workforce participation and having children, and the beliefs on which they are based. At present, for women who have children at a relatively early age, the factors mentioned above - social and personal - tend to interact to perpetuate restrictions on women's workforce participation and/or to mean that women make the major personal and workforce adjustments when children are born.


  • ABS (1990), The labour force, Australia. September 1990. Catalogue No. 6203.0.
  • Maas, Frank (1990), 'Child care needs of working families in the 1990s', Family Matters, No.26, April, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Prendergast, Shirley (1988), 'Women's work and working mothers: teenage girls' thoughts on combining work and childcare', Unpublished paper, Child Care and Development Group, University of Cambridge.
  • Wolcott, Ilene (1990), 'The structure of work and the work of families', Family Matters, No.26, April, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.