Gender and Work

Rosemary Crompton. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.

This chapter examines the parallel changes that have taken place over the last thirty years in gender roles and attitudes, and in paid employment. Women, particularly mothers, have taken up paid employment in ever-increasing numbers, and employment itself has become more flexible and less secure. Although women have gained full rights to equality in the workplace, they remain under-represented in higher-level jobs, and there is a persisting wage gap between men and women. There are a number of explanations for this continued pattern of disadvantage for women. The major explanation lies in the ideology of domesticity, which still allocates the major responsibility for caring work to women. Furthermore, in neo-liberal economies such as Britain and the United States, workplace intensification and increasing career pressures are making ‘career’ jobs even more problematic for individuals with caring responsibilities, who are usually women.


This chapter examines the parallel changes that have occurred in Western societies over the last sixty years with respect to work, markets, and gender. Since the 1940s, technological change has brought with it the transformation of production systems, as well as developments in areas such as communications and financial intermediation that have contributed to the globalization of markets and cultures. At the same time, the ‘feudal’ allocation of market work to men and domesticity to women (Beck, 1992) has begun to break down as more married women have entered and remained in paid employment.

Women in the United States, Europe, Scandinavia, and most other advanced industrial countries had secured rights to equal treatment in the world of market work by the 1970s. Nevertheless, despite this formal equality, major inequalities between men and women persist. The structure of employment is still characterized by occupational segregation (men and women are concentrated into different occupations), and there remains a substantial gap between men’s and women’s pay and lifetime incomes. Women in the United States pay a wage penalty for motherhood that has been estimated at between 5 and 7 per cent per child (Budig and England, 2001; Waldfogel, 1997). In part, the income gap is itself a consequence of occupational segregation, as ‘women’s’ jobs, such as nursing, care, and secretarial work, tend to be not as well paid as ‘men’s’ jobs, such as skilled craft occupations. Women are also more likely to work part-time, and are more likely to take employment breaks. Another contributory factor to women’s inequality in the sphere of paid work lies in the fact that even when women enter the same occupations as men, more often than not they fail to rise through organizational and professional hierarchies.

There is no one explanation of the persisting inequalities between women and men in employment. Nevertheless, two major sets of explanations for women’s employment inequalities relative to men may be identified. First are those that suggest that women’s employment patterns are an outcome of individual and family choices, and second are those that emphasize the persistence of structural barriers (including men’s exclusionary practices) to women’s progress and job opportunities.

Family and Women’s Employment Choices

Theories relating to the significance of individual choice with regard to women’s employment can be categorized within two conflicting traditions. First, there are neo-classical economic theories of the family, which argue that a traditional gendered division of labour is the most rational (and therefore efficient) as far as the family is concerned. Second, there are sociological theories that argue that individual norms or preferences are more significant in determining women’s employment patterns.

Drawing on theories of ‘human capital,’ economists have argued that women’s ‘choice’ to specialize in domestic work and men’s ‘choice’ to specialize in market work are economically rational as far as the family unit is concerned (Mincer and Polachek, 1974). As women are likely to suffer employment breaks as a consequence of their caring responsibilities, it is not rational for them to invest their ‘human capital’ in the paid workplace, and this reasoning will be reflected in their employment experiences. Gary Becker (1991) also assumes that the family unit will, as a rational ‘actor,’ behave so as to maximize its utility. Within the family, however, Becker assumes that motives of altruism prevail, in some contrast to the competitive market context within which it is embedded. Thus, family members (even if they are ‘rotten kids’) will act so as to maximize the utility function of the senior altruist (or benevolent patriarch). Neo-classical family economics therefore argues that decisions as to the allocation of household and market work between women and men (and thus women’s employment patterns) are guided by rational maximization principles that benefit the family as a whole.

Feminist economists have developed an extensive critique of neo-classical family economics. The de facto benevolence of the patriarch has been questioned, and much emphasis has been placed on the constraints on choices regarding the type and amount of work performed within the family, which may include ‘asymmetric property rights, other institutional rules, social norms, or individual bargaining power’ (Braunstein and Folbre, 2001: 29). In short, the feminist critique emphasizes the structural and normative constraints on supposedly rational decision-making.

Many social theorists have argued that contemporary societies are characterized by an increase in levels of individuation and choice (Beck, 1992; Giddens, 1991). Catherine Hakim (2000) has argued that contemporary changes in women’s employment reflect this relatively recent capacity of women to exercise their choices. Women’s employment patterns, she argues, are different from those of men because of the choices made by different types (or ‘preference groupings’) of women. She identifies three categories of women: home/family centred, work-centred, and adaptives/drifters. Home-centred women give priority to their families; work-centred women give priority to their employment careers; and adaptive women shift their priorities between family and career over their life cycles.

For Hakim, a major explanation for these male/female differences is biological, namely, variation in testosterone levels (2000: 258ff). Hakim is emphatic that contemporary women’s employment patterns are a consequence of their individual choices rather than any constraints arising from the nature of employment or other structural factors (such as, for example, the availability of non-family care resources): ‘self-classification as a primary earner or as a secondary earner is determined by chosen identities rather than imposed by external circumstance or particular jobs’ (2000: 275). Hakim further argues that ‘preferences’ should be the major guide to policy-making: ‘policy-making becomes more complex…as policy-makers need to make allowance for at least three distinct household work strategies’ (2000: 277). Her arguments have, not surprisingly, found favour in conservative political circles.

An emphasis on the reflexive individual and a focus on individual identities and choice, rather than collective actions and outcomes, have many resonances with economic neo-liberalism, and the promotion of individual rights meshes well with the arguments of those who have criticized the way in which collective provision has disempowered individuals. Thus, as John O’Neill has argued, with the contemporary sociological emphasis on individualization and identity, there has been something of a ‘convergence of a postmodern leftism with neo-liberal defences of the market’ (1999: 85; also see Frank, 2000). However, as Martha Nussbaum (2000) has argued, preferences are not necessarily the best guide to policy-making, not least because preferences do not exist in thin air, but are shaped by (among other things) habit, low expectations, and unjust background conditions. It is, therefore, vital to explore the context, which will include structural constraints as well as normative assumptions, within which choices are made and preferences developed.

There are some parallels to be drawn between Hakim’s approach and that of Simon Duncan and his colleagues, who have emphasized the significance of ‘moral rationalities’ in shaping mothers’ employment decisions (Barlow, Duncan, and James, 2002; Duncan and Edwards, 1999; Duncan, Edwards, Reynolds, and Alldred, 2003). Duncan et al.’s research in Britain identified three broad categories of ‘gendered moral rationalities’ among the groups they studied: primarily mother, primarily worker, and mother/worker integral. Afro-Caribbean mothers were more likely to be in full-time employment and tended to take a mother/worker integral perspective. That is, they saw their employment as providing a positive role model for their children and saw paid work as being part of ‘good’ mothering. In contrast, White mothers tended to be ranged along a primarily mother-primarily worker continuum, clustering mainly within the primarily mother category. Duncan and his colleagues argue that because current British government policies are based on the premise of an ‘adult worker’ model (the assumption that all adults, including mothers, will benefit from paid work), these policies commit a ‘rationality mistake.’ Here, Duncan and his colleagues are critical of neo-classical assumptions as to the universality of rational, individually maximizing behaviour. Women who define themselves as primarily mothers (whom Hakim might describe as home-and-family centred) will not take up employment even if it is in their economic interest to do so (Barlow et al., 2002).

Ideas about ‘the right thing to do,’ as well as ‘preferences’ relating to particular combinations of employment and caring, will shape individual employment and family decision-making. However, it is difficult to establish conclusively the presence of concrete and stable orientations to work among women, or men, for that matter (Crompton and Harris, 1998a). Qualitative research has demonstrated that women’s attitudes (and related behaviour) to employment and family responsibilities vary according to both context and stage in the family life cycle (Crompton and Harris, 1998a; Procter and Padfield, 1998). In practice, as Judith Glover (2002) has argued, most women (and an increasing number of men) seek to achieve some kind of balance between paid work and caring work. How this balance is achieved will depend in part on individual preferences, but in addition, as Glover argues, on a range of other factors, including particular occupational and geographical constraints, the social policy context, as well as broader cultural and normative prescriptions as to ‘acceptable’ family and employment behaviours (Crompton and Harris, 1998b; Pfau-Effinger, 1999). As Susan McRae argues, both normative andstructural constraints shape women’s decisions (2003: 329). Structural constraints include immediate practicalities such as the availability (and acceptability) of childcare, the demands of a particular job, and so on. However, as McRae has suggested, underlying class processes also significantly shape the attitudes and employment behaviour of women. It is an established fact that less well-educated women in the lower levels of the occupational structure are more likely to withdraw from or limit their employment when their children are young, if they can afford to do so (Rake, Davies, Joshi, and Alami, 2000).

The question as to whether attitudes determine behaviour, or vice versa, is one of those chicken-and-egg social science topics that is incapable of unambiguous resolution. Arguments as to the significance of individual choices in determining women’s employment patterns, therefore, can emphasize the explanatory value of either rational maximizing behaviour or the overwhelming power of individual norms and values. Both approaches rest on essentialist notions of gender. In the case of neo-classical economics, gender roles are naturalized. Hakim’s theory of ‘preferences’ rests on the ‘small but enduring’ biological differences between men and women. In contrast, critics of individualistic approaches tend to assert that gender is socially constructed and that the manner of this construction serves to maintain the structural barriers that persist in relation to women’s employment opportunities.

Gender and Employment

Much of the emphasis in second-wave feminist research and writing focused on the barriers faced by women in the employment spheres dominated by men (Cockburn, 1991; O’Connor, Orloff, and Shaver, 1999:25; Walby, 1986). Before the advent of legislation against gender discrimination, these barriers were explicit and overt. Women were barred from particular occupations (such as printing) and excluded from access to training and qualifications (such as medicine), as well as subject to direct exclusionary practices in organizations. The women who, increasingly, returned to paid employment in the 1960s and 1970s usually had ‘broken’ employment careers and only a low level of employment-related credentials and training. Nevertheless, many expressed considerable frustration at the very real and considerable barriers they faced (Crompton and Jones, 1984).

In most Western work organizations, explicitly gendered barriers against women’s progress had been formally removed by the 1970s and 1980s, although in some male-dominated occupations, such as engineering, informal barriers are still very much an issue (Bagilhole, Dainty, and Neale, 2000). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, equal opportunities (EO) policies have been positively encouraged by governments in Britain and the United States (as, indeed, they still are), and widely introduced across the organizational spectrum. As Harriet Bradley has demonstrated for the British case, EO policies have been, to a considerable extent, effective and have had an impact on men and women alike (1999: chs 5, 6).

More women have moved into management and the professions, but women are still under-represented at the topmost levels of the occupational structure. The persisting differences in women’s and men’s organizational experiences can be explained and understood by a number of overlapping arguments: first, those that focus on the characteristics of women as individuals; second, those that emphasize the characteristics of the organizations themselves and the qualities they require; and third, those relating to the wider context of employment and care.

Up to the 1970s and beyond, traditional bureaucratic careers were overwhelmingly based on men’s patterns of work. Women who did have careers (in the sense of upwardly mobile, long-term employment with a single organization) were unlikely to have children. (In career jobs such as banking, women were expected to leave employment during their first pregnancy.) Max Weber’s original formulation of the bureaucratic ideal-type characterizes office-holding as a vocation, demanding the ‘entire capacity for work for a long period of time’ (1958:198-199). Under the circumstances of the male-breadwinner model, married men would best fulfil these conditions. Wives of managers were widely expected to supply the kinds of domestic supports (entertaining, well-behaved children, clean shirts, etc.) that would help a man in his organizational career. They were, indeed, ‘career wives’ (Finch, 1983).

One of the more positive aspects of the demise of the bureaucratic career through organizational delayering and the development of the ‘portfolio career’ might be to reduce women’s disadvantage, as modern careers no longer require long-term, unbroken dedication to a single organization. The next section reviews some of the substantial literature that has focused on women’s relative failure to progress within organizational contexts.

Gender and Organizations

In common with other frameworks that prevailed in social science in the 1960s and into the 1970s, early discussion of women in bureaucratic organizations treated them as if they were gender-neutral. Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1977) argued that bureaucratic organizations were structures of power from which women were excluded. The key, therefore, was to enable women to acquire powerful positions. Male homosociability (the preference of men for working with people like themselves) would have to be overcome, but getting women into positions of power and authority meant equipping them for such jobs via training in assertiveness, getting the right credentials, and ensuring that recruitment to promoted positions was a scrupulously fair process. The focus was on women as individuals, their characteristics, and how the ‘right’ characteristics might be gained in order that they might progress though the organizational hierarchy. Indeed, the upsurge of qualification levels among women from the 1970s onwards led to suggestions that once women had acquired levels of ‘human capital’ (qualifications and work experience) equivalent to that of men, they might use the ‘qualifications lever’ in order to gain higher-level positions (Crompton and Sanderson, 1990).

Others argued that far from being gender-neutral, organizations were gendered, claiming, in particular, that bureaucratic hierarchies are inherently ‘masculine,’ embodying qualities of dominance, hierarchy, and abstract rationality (Ferguson, 1984). Thus ‘feminine’ qualities were not appropriate or effective in relation to career success in ‘masculine’ organizational contexts. This essentialist approach counterposed ‘feminine’ modes of working, based on cooperation and friendship, to ‘masculine’ bureaucratic hierarchies (Marshall, 1984).

It is not particularly appropriate to regard organizations per se as gender-neutral, masculine, or feminine. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that organizations are socially situated practices in which gender is constructed and that they have a gendered substructure, defined by Joan Acker as ‘the spatial and temporal arrangements of work… the rules prescribing workplace behaviour, and… the relations linking work places to living places. These practices and relations… are supported by assumptions that work is separate from the rest of life and that it has the first claim on the worker’ (1990: 142; see also Halford, Savage, and Witz, 1997:16). Gender is, so to speak, played out in organizations, particularly in respect to overtly sexual aspects of masculinities and femininities:

Bureaucratic organizations validate and permit forms of male embodiment and invalidate or render impermissible forms of female embodiment…For women, the discursive construct of the reproductive body assumes particular importance in disqualifying them from authority positions…The sexualised body represents another discursive construction of female embodiment whereby women have been included, qualifying them for certain front-stage and subordinate organizational functions. (Gottfried, 2003: 260-261, emphasis in original)

These cultural assumptions about women have been cited as evidence for the glass ceiling that exists between women and the topmost organizational positions (Davidson and Cooper, 1992). The removal of overt structural barriers against women within organizations, together with improvements in the ‘human capital’ of individual women, have failed to secure success for women in the highest levels of many areas of employment. The ‘cultural turn’ in the study of work and organizations was also associated with an increasing focus on the construction of gender within them. For example, Susan Halford et al. (1997: 79) document the shift in retail banking from the old-style, paternalist male manager towards a culture of ‘competitive masculinity’ in which decisive action and risk-taking predominate.

More generally, many contemporary social theorists have argued that in late capitalist or post-modern societies gender (and sexuality) is in the process of being reconfigured. In ‘reflexive modernity,’ individuals, it is argued, ‘make themselves’ (Beck, Giddens, and Lash, 1994). As Anthony Giddens has put it: ‘We are, not what we are, but what we make of ourselves…what the individual becomes is dependent on the reconstructive endeavours in which he or she engages’ (1991: 75). Thus, neither fixed family obligations nor rigid labour market and/or organizational practices serve to determine individual positioning; rather, it is the construction of the self that is of prime importance. For example, Linda McDowell’s (1997) study of City (of London) finance workers emphasized how appearance was central to workplace performance for men and women, and how both men and women drew upon particular masculinities and femininities in their work. Increasingly, studies of the workplace now focus on ‘a new sovereignty of appearance, image, and style at work, where the performance of stylised presentations of self has emerged as a key resource in certain sectors of the economy, particularly in new service occupations’ (Adkins, 2002b: 61).

If the (self-)construction of identity has indeed become of more importance than traditional gender stereotypes in the determination of organizational positioning, then conventional cultural assumptions relating to gender might be becoming less significant as far as women’s employment experiences are concerned. However, Heidi Gottfried (2003), for example, has recently demonstrated the overwhelming significance of gendered cultural assumptions in the recruitment and placing of temporary workers in Japan. Patricia Yancey Martin (2003) has argued that ‘gendering practices’ in the workplace can justify behaviours that systematically discriminate against women, citing, for example, a businessman who had a policy of never dining solo with women colleagues while on business trips. Men who enter occupations where most of the workers are women can find themselves on a ‘glass escalator,’ as organizational superiors hasten to move them into more gender-appropriate supervisory or administrative positions (Williams, 1992).

From a rather different perspective, Lisa Adkins has argued that capacities for ‘reflexivity’ (or self-construction) are themselves unevenly distributed, and, indeed, that some aspects of identity (for example, women and emotional labour) may be ‘naturalized’ and thus not capable of being used as employment claims, and that some people—for example, lesbians and gays—may choose to dis-identify in a workplace context (2002b: 125). Therefore, she argues:

The politics of identity are…not only at the heart of workplace politics but also of the labour process and the organization of production…the significance of issues of identity at work means that a politics of deconstruction (for example, of the hetero/homo binary) is now best suited to the task of addressing workplace struggles. (Adkins, 2002a: 36)

However, it may be argued that workplace injustices in relation to gender are not ‘merely sexual’ and indeed cannot be addressed at the level of the workplace alone.

My purpose here is not to reject culturalist theorizing. However, its contribution to our understanding of the persisting dominance of men in higher-level positions is somewhat inadequate. Indeed, one criticism of Adkins’s arguments is that the assumptions made as to the actual extent of occupational desegregation and the blurring of gender boundaries in the world of work are somewhat sweeping: ‘there is increasing evidence of processes of desegregation of occupations in terms of gender, a loosening of the boundaries between “men’s work” and “women’s work”’ (2002b: 60). Notwithstanding the insights that may be gained from the study of gender and sexual identities in organizational cultures and structures, the major explanation for the continuing under-representation of women in higher-level positions may lie in the wider context of employment and care, or the gender division of labour as a whole. Family responsibilities, particularly for childcare, mean that most women do not actively pursue an upwardly mobile occupational career, even when relatively well qualified.

The Ideology of Domesticity

The ideology of domesticity, in particular that of ‘moral motherhood’—self-sacrificing, passionless, and devoted to the maintenance of a ‘haven in a heartless world’—was crucial to the process of creating a claim for women’s moral superiority to men. In turn, the nineteenth century middle-class ideology of separate spheres for men and women built on this moral superiority. As described by Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall:

Their (the middle classes’) rejection of landed wealth as the source of honour and insistence on the primacy of the inner spirit brought with it a preoccupation with the domestic as a necessary basis for a good Christian life. Evangelical categorizations of the proper spheres of men and women provided the basis for many subsequent formulations and shaped the common sense of the nineteenth century social world. Men were to be active in the world as citizens and entrepreneurs, women were to be dependent, as wives and mothers. (1987: 450)

In the late twentieth century, Joan Williams argues that ‘domesticity did not die, it mutated’ (2000: 3). Although women (particularly mothers) have increasingly taken up continuous employment, they still retain the primary responsibility for childcare and the organization of domestic life. Employers continue to require ‘ideal workers,’ that is full-time employees who can be presumed to have an immunity from family work (Williams, 2000: 20). Domesticity’s capacity for mutation was enhanced by the transformations that were taking place in the world of paid employment at the same time as, with the advent of second-wave feminism, women claimed equality of access to and entry into paid work. The growth of flexible employment has seen an expansion of marginalized jobs that do not necessarily require ‘ideal workers’; at the same time, the demands made of ‘ideal workers’ have increased.

Deindustrialization and a shift to service-sector jobs have produced increasing flexibility in employment. In the literature, a distinction is drawn between numerical and pay flexibility, which allows the number of workers or amount of labour time to be varied, and functional flexibility, or multi-tasking. Women’s employment has been an integral part of discussions relating to employment flexibility from the 1980s. This is not surprising, given that women have always worked flexibly—in both the numerical and functional senses of the term. Manuel Castells has described new social relationships of production as translating into ‘a good fit between the “flexible woman” [forced to flexibility to cope with her multiple roles] and the network enterprise’ (2000: 20). The growth of flexible capitalism has been regarded by some as making a contribution to the resolution of the tensions between employment and family work. Thus, the more negative aspects of neo-liberal numerical flexibility are being glossed as a positive contribution to the reconciliation of employment and family life, with employment and families changing in tandem. However, as many authors have noted, flexible employment, which is concentrated among women, is not usually associated with individual success in the labour market, and flexible workers often tend to be in lower-level positions (Perrons, 1999; Purcell, Hogarth, and Simm, 1999).

The growth of service employment supposedly has advantages for women. Stereotypically feminine attributes, such as empathy and the capacity to form and nurture relationships, are key attributes for workers in the service economy. In the flexible, individualized working environments of ‘reflexive modernity,’ it is argued, gender differences will increasingly be eroded. John Macinnes (1998), for example, has claimed that we have reached the ‘end of masculinity,’ and Castells emphasizes the attractiveness of feminine relational skills for employers (1997: 69). Castells goes on to describe a ‘crisis of patriarchalism’ that ‘manifests itself in the increasing diversity of partnership arrangements among people to share life and raise children’ (1997: 221).

However, other authors have been more pessimistic about the consequences of increasing employment flexibility and the growth of the ‘network society,’ as described by authors such as Castells. In an influential text, Richard Sennett (1998) argues that the development of global, flexible capitalism has broken social bonds and undermined trust between individuals. Flexible working lives and the end of long-term career predictability have undermined the contribution of employment to the formation of individual identities. In the circumstances of modern organizations, he argues, relationships have been fragmented, as human beings no longer have deep reasons to care about one another. Thus the development of flexible capitalism has resulted in the corrosion of character… particularly those qualities of character which bind human beings to one another and furnishes each with a sense of sustainable self (p. 27).

Sennett’s argument, however, ignores gender differences in the impact of these kinds of changes. Most women do not experience career development in the same way, or have the same priorities, as most men, and many express deep conflict over their family responsibilities (Wacjman and Martin, 2002: 995). The playing field between men and women competing as individuals in employment may have been levelled somewhat, but women as mothers and carers face considerable difficulties balancing work and family. As Jane Lewis has argued, ‘too often women experience little genuine choice to care’ (2002: 348). As individuals, women may be seen as equal to men in the sphere of employment, but the normative constructs of domesticity still allocate the major responsibility for care to women: ‘our constructs of gendered behaviour emerged from societies in which men had far more cultural and economic power than women. The result can be described as “socially imposed altruism”’ (Badgett and Folbre, 1999: 316). Nevertheless, attitudes to women’s employment and gender roles are changing, and in the next section, I will briefly examine some recent evidence for these changes.

Changes in Mother’s Employment and Gender Role Attitudes

In Britain, women’s labour force participation rates have been rising since the 1950s and stood at 66 per cent in 1984. The rate then increased markedly during the 1980s, reaching 72 per cent by 2001, and the participation rates of mothers with young children changed rapidly in the last decade of the twentieth century. In 1990, the economic activity rate among mothers with a child under 5 was 48 per cent, but by 2001 had risen to 57 per cent. In contrast, men’s labour force participation rates have been falling, from 88 per cent in the 1980s to 84 per cent by 2001 (Dench et al., 2002). The employment of mothers has been rising in all countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, although there is still considerable inter-country variation. For example, in 1999, the employment rate of all mothers with a child under 6 was 61.5 per cent in the United States and 55.8 per cent in Britain, but 41.8 per cent in Spain and 45 per cent in Australia. Nevertheless, while the employment rate of mothers remains much lower than that of fathers, the gap has been closing quite rapidly, by around one percentage point per year in the 1990s (OECD, 2001: 133).

Changes in women’s employment have been accompanied by changes in once-stereotypical attitudes. There has been a steady decline, among both men and women, in the proportion of respondents who support the once-conventional view that ‘a man’s job is to earn money, a woman’s is to look after the home and family.’ Whereas around a third of men took this view in 1989, only a fifth did in 2002. The equivalent change among women has been from a quarter to one in seven.

There has been a corresponding change in attitudes about women’s employment, particularly that of mothers. In 1989, over two-thirds of those interviewed thought that a woman should ‘stay at home’ when she had a child under school age; by 2002, the proportion of people holding this view had declined to under a half.

Rates of attitudinal change have followed quite closely on actual changes in women’s employment behaviour. Women’s employment rose most rapidly during the 1980s, and levelled off somewhat during the 1990s, although employment rates among mothers of young children continued to rise. These changes in people’s views appear to be permanent. A comparison over the three surveys of people born in the same year suggests that in the older age cohorts, men and women are uniformly becoming more liberal in their attitudes. Changes in behaviour, as well as attitudes, are reflected in the three surveys. In 1989, 62 per cent of the mothers interviewed reported that they had stayed at home with a child under school age, but by 1994,52 per cent had, and by 2002, the percentage of mothers reporting ‘staying at home’ had declined even further, to 48 per cent.

Changes in mothers’ employment behaviour have been recent and rapid, as the majority of mothers of children born in the 1960s and 1970s simply did not ‘go out to work’ when their children were young. However, despite this recent and rapid increase in long-term employment among women, and corresponding changes in attitudes about gender roles and mother’s employment, the broad contours of occupational segregation still persist, so that women are not the equals of men in the employment sphere. The major factor that explains this persistence seems to be women’s continuing responsibility for domestic work and caregiving. Thus, women still predominate as part-time employees; in Britain, 43 per cent of women were employed part-time in 2002 (Duffield, 2002). The mutation of domesticity has brought women into paid employment, but much of this work is marginal in its nature, and other changes in the world of work are serving to make employment even more demanding for ‘ideal,’ full-time workers.

Intensification of Work, Individualization of Careers

It is somewhat paradoxical that as more women and mothers are in long-term employment, the nature of much of this employment would seem to be becoming increasingly less congenial for people who have caring responsibilities outside of the workplace. A wide range of empirical evidence has demonstrated that levels of work intensity have increased (Burchell, Ladipo, and Wilkinson, 2002; Gallie, 2002). In response to the pressures of work intensification, individuals may work part-time, and/or decline to put in the extra hours and effort that is (often implicitly) required by ‘high-performance’ policies. These individual strategies will have negative consequences for career development, and in the case of a failure to meet targets set by management, possible consequences for pay and job security. In the previous section of this chapter, I was critical of the extent to which the de facto priority that many women assign to caring and family responsibilities may be represented as a genuine ‘choice.’ Current developments in the workplace would seem to be making this ‘choice’ more difficult if the individual wishes to pursue a career. The erosion of the ‘traditional’ bureaucratic career may have opened up opportunities for women, but the pressures of individualized career development in contemporary organizations makes career progress for those with caring responsibilities extremely problematic.

As Rosemary Crompton and Nicky Le Feuvre (1996) have argued, women who seek to develop organizational careers are constrained to behave as ‘surrogate men,’ by working full-time and giving priority to their employment over their families, working longer hours when required to do so (see also Crompton, 1999; Crompton and Birkelund, 2000). Many women who are successful in career terms ‘choose’ to limit their families, or to forgo child-bearing altogether. Judy Wacjman’s study of senior managers demonstrated that two-thirds of the women managers did not have children living with them, in contrast to the two-thirds of men who did (1998:139). Halford et al.’s (1997) research found that although women are no longer the focus of direct exclusionary practices within the workplace, in career terms, a new division is opening up within organizations between ‘encumbered’ and ‘unencumbered’ workers—that is, those with and without caring responsibilities. As Wacjman argues, ‘being a successful manager currently requires an overriding commitment to work. The job consumes most waking hours and dominates life in every respect. While this is true for both women and men, it has very different implications for their personal lives and domestic arrangements’ (1998: 156).

Work-Life ‘Balance’?

The rise in mothers’ employment, together with growing pressures within the workplace itself, have led to an increasing focus on the topic of work-life ‘balance’ by both academic researchers and policy-makers (DTI, 2000; 2003; Hochschild, 1997; Lewis and Lewis, 1996; Moen, 2003). The topic is particularly salient in Britain and the United States because both countries have been characterized by neo-liberal labour market policies that have done much to increase work intensity and thus the difficulties of combining employment and family life. Both Britain and the United States are also characterized by long hours of work. Full-time employees in Britain have the longest working hours in Europe, and the length of the working week in the United States has increased (Schor, 1991).

In Britain, the government is promoting work-life balance through the encouragement of flexible and part-time employment (DTI, 2000: ch. 6). Many women in Britain do work part-time, and Britain has the second highest (after the Netherlands) level of part-time work in Europe. However, as we have seen, the concentration of part-time work among women will contribute to continuing gender inequality, both in respect of incomes as well as in opportunities for upward career mobility.

Organizational culture has also been identified as making a negative contribution to work-life balance (Hojgaard, 1997; Lewis, 1997). Long hours are seen as a measure of organizational commitment, and organizations tend to place the major value on employees who do not allow family commitments to intrude into their working lives. British government policy has encouraged employers to introduce ‘family-friendly’ policies in order to address work-life balance issues, but has fought shy of any element of compulsion or interference in management’s ‘right to manage.’ Even when ‘family-friendly’ policies are made available to employees, many do not feel able to use them because of the pressures associated with their work (Crompton, Dennett, and Wigfield, 2003b; Eaton, 2003). An analysis of two large British employment surveys (1992 and 2000) found that appraisal systems, group working practices, and individual incentives (all aspects of ‘high-commitment’ management practices) increased negative job-to-home spillover (White, Hill, McGovern, Mills, and Smeaton, 2003). They suggest that ‘there may… be… practices that employers regard as important for their own success which may exacerbate the work-life balance problem irrespective of the positive contribution of family friendly policies’ (2003: 176).

Both the pressures of the market, therefore, as well as at the workplace, make work-life ‘balance’ problematic. As Phyllis Moen has argued:

contemporary dual-earner couples are living in a historical time period when they are the norm…over half the workforce is currently married to (or partnered with) another worker… Still, jobs, career paths, community services and family life remain structured in ways that assume that workers have someone else to take care of households, personal affairs, children, and aged or infirm relatives. (2003: 13)


The ideology of domesticity has persisted despite extensive changes in gender role attitudes among both men and women, as well as the widespread entry of middle-class mothers of young children into paid employment. The persistence of a modified version of the gendered domestic ideal has in part been facilitated by wider changes in the structure of paid work during the twentieth century that have generated flexible, part-time (and often marginal) jobs that women can combine with their caring responsibilities. At the same time, the demands of ‘ideal worker’ (full-time) jobs have increased. As a consequence, even well-qualified women in non-marginal employment will often ‘choose’ to give priority to their caring responsibilities and will not rise as swiftly as men (or not at all) through organizational hierarchies. These difficulties are compounded by the persistence of gendered practices and assumptions about women in contemporary organizations.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the topic of work-life ‘balance’ has risen to the forefront of the policy agenda, particularly in those countries, such as Britain and the United States, in which neo-liberal policies have resulted in a relative lack of employment and labour market regulation and thus an increasing intensification of work demands. Is it possible to identify any alternatives to this admittedly rather gloomy scenario?

Abstractly, market capitalism undermines the family form through its indifference to the private lives of the labour power it purchases (Seccombe, 1993:19). As Ulrich Beck has remarked, ‘The market subject is ultimately the single individual, “unhindered” by a relationship, marriage, or family’ (1992: 116). The ‘male-breadwinner’ model of the articulation of employment and the family solved the problem of social reproduction within capitalism as well as generating a supply of (male) ‘ideal workers’ (Folbre, 1994). The cost of this solution was the continuing unequal and subordinate position of women. This situation has changed, from the twentieth century onwards, with the advent and acceptance of women’s claims to economic and social equality. These have been powerful (and painful) developments, and their impact has by no means been fully worked through. However, the tensions brought about by these changes are unlikely to be resolved unless (a) men become more like women, and begin to combine both caring and market work over their productive lives (Fraser, 1994), and (b) states and governments confront the necessity of providing greater family supports and regulating ‘family-unfriendly’ employment. These two strands of change are inextricably inter-related, as men (and women) cannot be expected to participate to any great extent in caring work if they are also expected to work for pay over forty-five hours a week.

The continuing pre-eminence of neo-liberal economic and labour market policies in nations such as Britain and the United States means that such government-sponsored changes are not very likely to happen in these countries. Nevertheless, there are examples of contemporary nation states that have developed policies that have been much more supportive of the consequences of changes in gender relations and women’s employment. The most high-profile examples would be the Nordic welfare states, which offer extensive, state-sponsored supports to carers (and those needing care), as well as promoting active policies of gender equality. Women in these countries have achieved a greater level of equality with men, and there is also evidence that employment itself, and the combination of employment with family life, is less stressful (Crompton and Lyonette, 2004; Gallie, 2003). Although it could not be claimed that an optimum ‘balance’ of gender equality and work-life articulation has been completely achieved in the Scandinavian countries, nevertheless, these examples do serve to demonstrate that policies can, indeed, make a difference (Esping-Andersen, Gallie, Hemerijck, and Myles, 2002).