Multiple attacks on working women


By Jennifer Thompson

The federal government's budget cuts and changes to industrial relations are nudging women out of public life and back into a traditional family care role, charges a non-government submission to the UN Commission on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Women's economic independence, already restricted, is becoming more limited by these and more subtle factors, including "mainstream societal models of the family", argues a recent paper by Melbourne academic Belinda Probert. The women most likely to be affected are less educated women with a lower income and less satisfying jobs.

In November, Prime Minister John Howard told a Centre for Independent Studies function that Australia needs to recognise the lasting damage being caused by irresponsible parental behaviour, and that society needs cohesive units and stabilisers — the greatest being the family unit.

"The government now puts far more money into rewarding women in traditional roles while increasing the costs of child-care for working women", the Coalition of Australian Participating Organisations of Women (CAPOW) submission pointed out.

It's not too difficult to deduce that, given the government's financial incentives to encourage women from the work force and into the home full time, "parental irresponsibility" might be code for women combining domestic and child rearing tasks with paid part-time or full-time work.

Yet Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) research presented by Ilene Wolcott and Helen Glezer (Australian Family Formation Project 1981-91) shows that 44% of women without children at home preferred full-time work, compared to 14% of women with children.

Forty-seven per cent of women without children at home preferred part-time work, compared to 61% of women with children.

Ten per cent of women without children at home preferred not to work, compared to 25% of women with children who preferred not to work.

Limited choice

Plainly, their commitment to child rearing and domestic tasks is determining the work force preferences of Australian mothers. According to the AIFS (Australian Living Standards Study 1991-92), 71% of non-working mothers gave looking after children as the reasons they weren't employed, compared to 5% of non-working fathers.

Eighty-two per cent of mothers working part time said the reason was to have more time with their children, and 79% said they needed time to look after their house and family.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics inquiry, Labour Force Status and Other Characteristics of Families, released in June 1996, of the 4,834,000 families in Australia, 84% (4,060,050) are "couple families" and 48% of those (1,949,069) have dependants.

Amongst couple families, 61% have both parents in the labour force (employed, training or looking for work), and 35% have one partner in the labour force (which was the man in 94% of cases).

Another 14% (672,000) of Australian families are headed by a single parent, 85% of whom are women. The parent was not in the labour force in 50% of single-parent families, and in 47% the parent was employed.

Social significance

Women's, particularly married women's, increased participation in the work force over the last 30 years, has been seen as hugely significant, says Probert in a paper, "The Social Shaping of Work: Struggles Over New Boundaries", to last month's National Social Policy Conference.

The change, she says, "is seen as not only transforming the lives of such women, but of bring with it changes in social policy, community attitudes and everything from child-rearing practices to eating habits".

Women's integration into the work force has been treated as possibly the most important indicator for the degree of equality between the sexes, she argues.

Yet the time has come for a qualitative approach, Probert says, because the picture created by the increased number of women working, and the expansion of part-time jobs at the expense of full-time jobs — "the feminisation of the economy" — is misleading.

The proportion of women over 15 years employed in full-time jobs has hardly changed over the last 60 years (in 1933, 25.2% of women worked full time, 26.9% in 1966 and in April, 28%).

Rather than the increasing number of women participating in the work force (54% of Australian-born women by 1991) significantly challenging the traditional family division of labour, domestic ideologies have shaped women's "structure of choices", she says.

Probert documents the increasingly different experiences of women of different socioeconomic status since the 1950s and '60s. Then, they had much more in common — generally sole responsibility for unpaid domestic labour at a time when the spread of household income between richer and poorer neighbourhoods was much narrower than today.

This shared experience, she notes, was a powerful impetus for the development of the second wave of the women's liberation movement.

By the mid-1990s, the picture is strikingly different. Between 1976 and 1991, men's employment rate fell 9% in the top 5% of households, and 37% in the bottom 5%. For women, the employment rate in the richest half of households increased 16.2%, but for the bottom half, fell 3%, and in the bottom tenth by 17.5%.

New inequalities

According to research by Probert and Fiona McDonald for the Brotherhood of St Laurence's Future of Work project, the increasingly divergent patterns of paid work among women have resulted in increasingly different views on men and women's appropriate roles — their commitments to work and to family.

Put simply, Probert says, in the '90s new forms of structured inequality have emerged, between women and between families.

For many women, especially those suffering poorer job prospects, lack of work skills and earning power, Probert says, the traditional sexual division of labour is not experienced as a choice.

"Given their husband's earning power, however meagre, compared to their own, and their husband's very clear preferences for maintaining separate spheres [shown by the Brotherhood of St Laurence and AIFS research], together with the lack of work which can be structured to fit around their beliefs in good mothering ... the options are not very obvious."

The large number of women who work part time, in deference to their primary role in the home, will be particularly affected by economic changes and by Howard government policies — reducing their economic independence and self-determination.

While changes in working hours might create some new options for part-time work, they might also increase the stress on women, Probert notes. Working hours for men are increasing while changes to industrial law have eroded women's control over their working hours — with the band of ordinary time hours spreading and no minimum limits on hours per day.

Howard's attacks

These changes have been accompanied by increased child-care costs, limiting women's ability to earn more than it costs to work.

The CAPOW submission lists the attacks:

  • <~>The 1996 Workplace Relations Act undermines the award system, which had allowed women to begin closing the gap between their wages and men's.

  • <~>Secret individual contracts — Australian Workplace Agreements — can be used to disadvantage industrially weaker workers such as women and reduce their entitlements over time. Trade unions are not permitted to scrutinise AWAs or employers' compliance.

  • <~>Minimum standards for working conditions have been reduced, and many conditions previously covered by awards are now excluded from industrial agreements — occupational health and safety, sexual harassment, equal employment opportunity and training.

  • <~>Limits on the proportions of full-time, part-time and casual workers are now prohibited, as are maximum and minimum hours of work. Women are likely to suffer deregulation of their conditions and more pressure to meet employer needs for "flexibility".

  • <~>A $50 fee and costs awards for unfair dismissal claims are likely to discourage remedial legal action by women, as will cuts to legal aid funding.

  • <~>Contracting out of ancillary and support services — in which women are disproportionately represented — in the public service will affect job security and conditions.

The combined effects of these changes, economic decline and the continuing dominance of a traditional sexual division of labour will reinforce sexual inequality, women's economic dependence and inequality between rich and poor. n