The part-time solution for mothers isn't all yoga and berry muesli

Mum searching for breastmilk on the internet.
Mum searching for breastmilk on the internet. 

It was supposed to be the solution to the dilemma of work-life balance. Life was supposed to be better for mothers, and fairer, when they struck some enlightened deal with their boss to work part-time, spending the rest of the week mopping the sticky spots off the floorboards and dragging toddlers through the supermarket.

Well it seems that part-time work for women, far from being the solution, may be part of the problem, making life busier and less equal. This is the conclusion I have drawn from a study comparing the demands on families with young children, including the gender division of work and care, in five countries, namely the US, Australia, Italy, France and Denmark.

Researchers Lyn Craig and Killian Mullan, of the social policy research centre at the University of NSW, found that Australian families worked the hardest, when taking into account paid and unpaid work. In all the countries couples found themselves working harder once they had children, but the difference was most extreme in Australia.

The explanation had little to do with stereotypes about Aussie men being lazy - they were working very long hours in paid work - and a lot to do with our obsession with mothers working part-time rather than full-time.

The statistics are stark on this. Only 18.5 per cent of Australian families with young children have both parents working full time, compared to 64.7 per cent in Denmark, 35 per cent in Italy, 25.3 per cent in France, and about 36 per cent in the US.

Far from leading to a life with lots of yoga and berry muesli and walks on the beach, Australian mothers working part-time filled up the hours saved with even longer hours on housework and childcare.

Just as tellingly, Australian families acted the most Danish, sharing housework equally, when the mother worked full-time. In these families men also did more housework without supervision.

The researchers concluded that if we want to improve work-life balance, and gender equality, we need more mothers working full-time, greater fatherly involvement in childcare, and we also need to lessen "the currently very high combined time pressures of employment and care upon Australian families".

And it is this last point that seems to go to the heart of the problem. The reason why so many mothers drop back to part-time work in the first place seems to be the long hours expected of full-time workers. Plenty of women drop back to three or four days a week simply because it is the only way to contain work to the "normal" 38 hours that are supposed to constitute full-time work. Others drop back even further because they have to plug the domestic gaps left by a partner working 60 hours a week.

Advertisement

As a result women suffer the cascade of crap which flows from part-time status: less money, fewer opportunities for advancement and pissed-off clients who leave voicemail messages and don't get a response for three days.

And still it may not serve young children any better. Working a few very long days may be less suited to the needs of small children than working five short days. For example, breastfeeding would be easier to maintain with a regular pattern of six hours a day away, which the baby and the boobs could come to predict, rather than lurching from being all there one day, then gone from breakfast until after bedtime the next.

As well as supporting the crazy work hours culture, the tendency of Australian mothers to default to part-time work supports all other kinds of crazy things. The fact that childcare centres are located in different places from primary schools, that school hours are wildly different from work hours, that businesses find it acceptable to schedule breakfast meetings at 7am, none of this would have persisted so long if it were not for families delegating mothers to the task of general dogsbody who makes it all possible.

So next time there is a report on some creative part-time work arrangement, it is worth pausing before accepting it is terribly innovative and progressive. Maybe mother really is happiest working that way. But it may also be the case that it is an arrangement with a lot of the downsides of full-time work, and few of the upsides, which in the end only bolsters the frenzied status quo they are trying to escape.

What has been your experience of part-time work? Comment on the EB Forums.