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Chapter 5: Coping with Work and Family Responsibilities

Modernisation and the time squeeze

In previous chapters, we addressed the patterns of women's participation in the labour market and the organisation of the household separately. We will now examine the implications of coping with the two simultaneously, as more women and, to a lesser extent, men are expected to do in most industrialised societies. As long as work and family care and domestic work were the distinct domains of men and women, respectively, the matter of personally balancing the two was a non-issue, both in practical terms and as a research topic. With the ever-increasing participation of women and especially mothers in the labour force, the dominant family model in advanced industrial societies shifted from the male-breadwinner and female-carer family to the two-earner model. Concomitantly, work-family conflict and its corollaries emerged as a topic attracting increasing attention from the research community and as a topic of policy concern.

In the present chapter, we focus on the work-family balance or imbalance as perceived by individuals rather than any objective measure of actual time ‘crunch’. We define work-family conflict or lack of balance as the difficulties perceived by individuals in attempting to combine paid work and family care activities, i.e. the pressure arising from the perceived incompatibility of work and family roles (see [Moe03] [Edl07]). This is measured as the response to survey items that address the extent to which family matters are perceived by the respondent as interfering with the performance of work activities in a proper manner, and, conversely, work-related issues impinging on family care and household activities. The specific measures will be discussed later.

The time pressure implied by the work-family conflict is often viewed as a feature of modernisation. Simmel referred to the phenomenon as ‘increased pace of life’, i.e. a situation in which individuals are confronted with simultaneous tasks and roles which they must rapidly run through [Fri86]. Such circumstances may result in perceived overload. Paradoxically, however, the same experience may lead to an increased sense of stimulation and accomplishment. Hence, the implications of modernisation for the work-family balance are not uniform and are likely to vary across situations and times. Gershuny [Ger00] succinctly summarised the major competing positions. He pointed out that economic progress associated with modernisation intensifies pressure on individuals and the family as boundaries between work and other life spheres are permeated and the technology of the modern economy demands an ever-growing pace of work. The counter-argument states that modernisation contains the means for successfully combining work and family, as it provides coping resources, such as technologies that reduce housework and more flexible social arrangements in the family and in the workplace.

Indeed, in a comprehensive review of studies that addressed the ‘pace of life’ in advanced industrial societies, Garhammer [Gar02] concluded that societies have generally adapted to the higher pace of life and the resulting time pressure. However, the overall or aggregate representation conceals considerable variation between social groups defined by their gender, age, family status and employment situation. These variations, and especially those associated with gender and family situation, will be the focus of the present chapter.

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Drivers of work-family imbalance

Before exploring possible societal differences in the likelihood of experiencing work-family balance (or conflict), we review several individual or family attributes that are expected to correlate with work-family balance. These include time availability, family demands and the household division of labour.

Time availability – time is a scarce resource. Hence, one can assume that, when attempting to balance work and family demands, longer hours spent in the labour market are likely to result in a time squeeze. This is typically referred to as the ‘availability’ hypothesis [Cov85] [Jag02]. As chief responsibility for family care and household chores still resides with women, we would expect that long working hours will result in a greater perceived work-family conflict among women than among men. Employment arrangements, and especially the extent of flexibility, were also found to affect work-family balance, but the relationship is not straightforward. When flexibility is accompanied by employment uncertainty, as in the case of precarious jobs, it is likely to increase the pressure emanating from the work situation. However, when the employee is given a greater opportunity to arrange his or her own working schedule, it is possible to coordinate work and family care and to achieve a better work-family balance.

Family demands – the ‘demand’ hypothesis [Cov85] posits that the greater the household demands, the more difficult it is to balance work and family. Household demands vary with family composition and are especially high when young children are present. As women typically carry the main share of family responsibilities and for childcare in particular, we would expect the work-family conflict to be more pronounced among employed mothers of young children than among men or among women without children or those whose children are grown up.

Household division of labour – As the work-family balance relates to the extent to which labour market and family responsibilities are coordinated, we would expect a more egalitarian organisation of household tasks and a greater amount of outsourcing of household tasks to be associated with less conflict between work and family responsibilities. More specifically, women in more egalitarian households will experience less time squeeze (and, therefore, reduced work-family imbalance) than women in more traditionally organised households. The reverse is likely to apply to men, although the differences will be less pronounced.

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Work-family balance in context

As noted above, the work-family time pressure has frequently been theorised in the context of increasing modernisation. Modernisation as it is manifested in advanced industrialisation is associated with changes in fertility and household composition, the rise of mass higher education, growing participation of women in the labour market, a growing demand for gender equality, a shift to the service society, changes in the organisation of work and de-commodification policies [Wil02]. From this point of view, differences in work-family balance (conflict) should be expected between advanced industrial societies and economically less developed societies [Edl07]. The societies that are included in the present study, however, are clustered at the more advanced industrial end of the continuum and are quite similar in the extent of their modernisation processes. Nonetheless, we expect the patterns of work-family balance to differ across the countries that are characterised by distinct family regimes. Edlund (2007, p. 2) has noted that in ‘…the Nordic countries the issue of work-family balance falls within the political sphere.’ In market-oriented countries such as the United States, as Edlund points out, female employment rates are relatively high, as is the case in the Nordic countries. However, they are primarily shaped by market forces with little state intervention. In this context, the work-family balance is primarily seen as a private matter which individuals and families are expected to resolve. In countries on the European continent – those countries Esping-Andersen referred to as conservative – the family is viewed as the dominant provider and the work-family balance for women is often resolved by exiting the labour force and reducing participation in employment activities.

Other studies have also taken a comparative approach to differences between countries in the extent of the work-family balance [Cro06] [Jag02]. These studies typically investigate a small number of countries and seek to explain observed differences in light of the specific characteristics of the countries in question. In this chapter, we join the comparative effort but address possible differences at the aggregate level in work-family balance, employing the typology we have used throughout this manuscript. In general, we expect a lower level of conflict between work and family demands in regimes in which the state provides the means for combining these two competing activities. In other words, the level of conflict will be lower in the individual-independence and in the state-dependence regimes than in the two other regimes. Family policies and childcare arrangements in the individual-independence regime, as well as divergent market arrangements, allow women to reduce work pressures when family demands are high and to increase their involvement in the labour force when family demands are alleviated. For example, women can work part-time when they have babies but still keep their good jobs. When the children grow older they can return to full-time employment without encountering high penalties. Similarly, high quality, publicly subsidised and maintained day-care facilities allow women to devote a greater proportion of their efforts to work activities without being pressured by family demands.

‘Family-friendly’ policies and part-time employment are also available to women in the state-dependence regime, except that in this context the dominant ideology does not expect women to provide for the family as men do. Therefore, women are expected to reduce the work-family conflict by interrupting their employment or, alternatively, by choosing less demanding, often low-paid, part-time jobs. In this context, the amount of time women devote to work is expected to strongly affect their sense of imbalance. Similarly, the perceived conflict will be higher when the children are young, since care arrangements for children are not well developed in these settings, especially for very young children, but also for children of school age.

The conflict between work and family is expected to be greatest in societies characterised by market-dependence or family-dependence regimes. Weak family-oriented policies and the lack of institutional arrangements designed to reduce conflicts are likely to increase the sense of imbalance, especially among full-time working mothers. We would expect the conflict to be especially strong in the market-dependence regime, because women in these countries are expected to participate in paid employment and to contribute to their family’s economic well being. They are expected to maintain a continuous attachment to the labour force in order to maintain their position and their market-related skills. Interruptions to employment due to family demands are likely to be penalised in terms of the type of jobs they are able to secure and their market rewards. Although the market provides childcare solutions, they are not necessarily designed to accommodate the work-family balance and, thus, those who experience greater time and family demands are also expected to experience high work-family imbalances.

As noted above, the sense of conflict is also expected to be high for working women in the family-dependence regime. However, women may often solve the work-family conflict by exiting the labour market (temporarily or for good). Within the ideological framework that governs the family-dependence regime, this is an acceptable solution. However, for those women who remain in the labour market during periods of high family demand we would expect to find strong perceptions of imbalance between their work and family responsibilities.

Using data from the ISSP 2002 Family and Changing Gender Roles survey, Edlund [Edl07] recently proposed three types of responses that appeared to be robust across countries. One response is characterised as work-family balance, i.e. persons who appear not to experience conflict. A second type is work-overload. This refers to a situation in which work requirements tend to interfere with family life and household responsibilities. The third type represents a dual overload, as work and family pressures cross over in both directions. Demands from the domestic sphere interfere with work activities, while problems are experienced at the same time with carrying out domestic duties because of work requirements. Theoretically, we would expect a fourth type as well – in which family demands interfere with work activity in the market – but this did not emerge empirically.

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Measuring work-family balance

The concept of work-family balance addresses the degree of difficulty or ease with which people manage to balance the demands emanating from the work and family environments. Typically, the concept is concerned with perception, i.e. whether individuals perceive the situation they are in as stressful or manageable. Surveys have used items that differ slightly in their wording, but they aim to convey the same meanings. For example, the Household, Work and Flexibility survey [Jag02] used four items, one of which read: ‘My responsibilities towards my family and other important persons in my life prevented me from doing my work adequately.’ The ISSP survey [Iss02] used a similar item worded: ‘I have found it difficult to concentrate at work because of my family responsibilities.’ A similarly worded item was also used in the ESS module on Work and Family. Nonetheless, item wording and emphases often differ among surveys, as do measurement schemes.

The ESS 2004 survey includes five items that address work-family conflict (or balance) for persons living with a partner. We already mentioned one of the items above, which addresses the way family life might interfere with work. The other items generally consider the way work interferes with other spheres of life. One item, for example, asks: ‘How often do you find that your job prevents you from giving the time you want to your partner or family?’ Each of the items is measured on a five-point Likert scale ranging from ‘never’ (1) to ‘always’ (5).

Utilising the items that address one’s experience with respect to the balancing of work and family, one can investigate a variety of issues at the individual level (e.g. the possible effect of work-family balance on one’s satisfaction with life; or whether flexible work arrangements contribute to work-family balance). These items can also be used to examine differences between groups or societies, linking macro-level characteristics to the average experiences of men and women in society.

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Exercise 5.1

To be able to solve this exercise, you need to have software (SPSS) installed on your computer, and you should download and use the dataset Family, Gender and Work.

  1. Denmark, Spain and the UK represent different regime types. Based on the logic of gender regime, in which country would you expect working women to experience the strongest family-work conflict? In which country would you expect the least work-family conflict?



  1. What is the meaning of a high score for the variable you created?
  2. Do differences in mean scores for the family-work conflict variables conform to your hypothesis concerning country differences?
  3. Arrange the results of the regression analysis in a table consisting of three columns (one column for each country). The relevant coefficients for each variable should be listed in the rows.
  4. How is family-work conflict related to the number of hours women spend in market work and to the number of children?
SPSS syntax
*You need to have a copy of SPSS installed on your computer, and you should download and use the dataset Family, Gender and Work.
*Open SPSS by clicking on the appropriate link.
*Open the ESS data by clicking ‘File’, ‘Open’, and ‘Data’ on the SPSS menu bar before you select the folder and the data set.
*Open a new syntax window by clicking ‘File’, ‘New’, and ‘Syntax’ on the SPSS menu bar.
*You can copy the syntax below and paste it into the syntax window in SPSS.
*Execute the syntax using the 'Run' option on the menu bar.

*Comments on commands start with an asterisk and end with a dot.

*Commands must always end with a dot.

*The following command causes the cases to be weighted by the design weight variable 'dweight'.

WEIGHT BY dweight.

*Create filter variable - only include working women from Denmark, Spain and the UK living with partners.

COMPUTE filter_$=gender = 0 & work_sta = 1 & (cntry ='DK' | cntry ='ES' | cntry ='GB' ) & (marital=1 or lvgptn=1).
VARIABLE LABEL filter_$ 'gender = 0 & work_sta = 1 & (cntry =DK or ES or GB) & (marital=1 or lvgptn=1) (FILTER)'.
VALUE LABELS filter_$ 0 'Not Selected' 1 'Selected'.
FORMAT filter_$ (f1.0).
FILTER BY filter_$.
/VARIABLES wrywprb trdawrk jbprtfp pfmfdjb dfcnswk
/ANALYSIS wrywprb trdawrk jbprtfp pfmfdjb dfcnswk
/VARIABLES=wrywprb trdawrk jbprtfp pfmfdjb dfcnswk
COMPUTE conflict = mean(wrywprb,trdawrk, jbprtfp, pfmfdjb, dfcnswk).
VARIABLE LABELS conflict 'Family-work conflict (index, MEAN wrywprb,trdawrk, jbprtfp, pfmfdjb, dfcnswk)'.
/DEPENDENT conflict
/METHOD=ENTER partime children.

*Turn off the split file and weight, and select all cases.

Sample solution


  1. Hypothesis: We expect working women to experience greatest work-family conflict in the market-dependence regime (UK) and least conflict in the individual-independence regime (Denmark).


  1. The factor analysis procedure (using principal component analysis) suggests that the five items represent one underlying factor, and their weights are rather similar. The relatively high reliability score (α = 0.77) also suggests that a composite score can be created. A high score on the scale indicates greater work-family conflict.
  2. Contrary to our hypothesis, the mean scores for the three countries are very similar.
  3. Table
  4. We use a dummy variable representing part-time vs. full-time employment and we find negative coefficients in all three countries (b = -0.158 for Denmark, b = -0.347 for Spain, and b = -0.395 for the UK). Working part-time (as opposed to full-time) reduces women’s perceived work-family conflict. The strongest effect, as might be expected, is in the UK. The number of young children at home does not generally have an effect on work-family conflict. Please note that the coefficient of Denmark (b = 0.146) is only borderline significant, indicating that more children tends to increase the conflict. The fact that the effect emerged in Denmark (rather than the UK) is contrary to expectations.
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