Family, Gender and Work

By Professor Noah Lewin-Epstein and Associate Professor Haya Stier


It is recommended that you start with the first chapter, and then proceed chronologically. In this way, you will develop your skills gradually.

Introduction: Family and work in industrialised societies

During the last half century, women's labour force participation rose rapidly in most industrialised countries. This change is nowhere more evident than among married women and mothers of young children whose prevalence of paid employment rose dramatically. The rise in wives’ economic activity shifted many families from the traditional situation of a sole male provider to a dual-earner family organisation. Indeed, families dependent on a sole male provider have become a minority in most industrialised societies [Sti03] [Spa96] [Bia99] [Wai01]. Women’s rate of participation in the labour force has grown more similar to men’s over the years. In Sweden, for example, women's labour force participation rate rose from 60% in the 1970s to close to 80% in the 2000s, while the rate for Swedish men fell from more than 90% to somewhat over 80% during the same period. A similar trend, although at lower rates, is evident in many European countries, although women have not yet reached parity with men [Pfa05].

Changes in women's economic activity notwithstanding, gender differences in economic behaviour still remain. Women are more likely than men to work part-time and their labour market attachment is more likely to be interrupted, primarily as a result of marriage and childbirth. Women also tend to hold different jobs than men. It is true that women can be found in practically every occupation at every level of authority, but, for the majority of women, gender-linked occupational segregation is still very much a part of their work experience. As a result of these differences, earning disparities between men and women, while somewhat narrower than in the past, show no sign of disappearing. Indeed, despite all the changes that have taken place in the last quarter of a century, gender inequality is still a highly visible feature of the labour market. At the outset of the 21st century, women in industrial societies earn between two-thirds and four-fifths of similarly employed males [Orl02].

Even more puzzling is the fact that the changes in women’s economic position have not brought about a corresponding change in the division of housework and care work within the family. Although the amount of time women invest in housework has declined in recent decades, the small increase in the time spent by men on housework chores only partially offsets this reduction [Ger03] [Col00]. In all industrialised countries, women are still left with the major responsibility for housework and child care. Thus, the household division of labour remains unbalanced and gender dependent [Orl02].

The trends discussed above have emerged in all industrialised countries. However, considerable variation remains with respect to female labour force participation, the prevalence of part-time work and the organisation of households. Indeed, countries differ in the way gender relations are perceived and consequently in the institutional arrangements that are put in place. This is evident from the variety of social policies that have been implemented to facilitate women’s employment, reduce work-family conflict and promote gender equality [Sti07].

In the following chapters, we provide a prism for utilising the European Social Survey data in comparative analysis and then use this prism to discuss some of the most pertinent issues relating to the family-work nexus. We start out with a brief introduction to the different ways in which survey data are used in comparative research. Following this general methodological review, we outline a typology of societies which we will use throughout the text as an apparatus that will guide the comparative analysis of data from different countries. We then turn, successively, to labour market and household components of the work-family nexus and end with an evaluation of the ways in which individuals and families balance the two.