You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Money Top Stories

Women are making themselves at home in the workforce

Brisbane Times logo Brisbane Times 2 days ago Ross Gittins
a person with collar shirt: Illustration: Simon Letch © Provided by Brisbane Times Illustration: Simon Letch

In the world of paid work, women still have a lot to complain about: unequal pay and promotion, still-inadequate childcare, and a tax and benefit system that discourages “secondary earners” from working more.

All true. But don’t let this conceal from your notice the success women are having at flooding into the long male-dominated workforce and slowly reshaping it to their needs.

In my never-humble opinion, for as long as girls continue making themselves better educated than boys, it’s only a matter of time before women are calling the shots.

Reserve Bank deputy governor Dr Guy Debelle highlighted women’s growing role in the labour market in a speech he gave last week.

You’ve no doubt heard the government boasting about how strongly the number of jobs has grown on its watch. It’s true.

The rest of the economy hasn’t been doing well – wages, the standard of living, for instance – but employment has been growing at the disproportionately strong annual rate of about 2.5 per cent over much of the past three years.

As a consequence, a near-record 62.6 per cent of all Australians aged 15 and over have a paid job.

But here’s what the pollies never mention, but Debelle noted: women accounted for two-thirds of the additional jobs in the past year.

a close up of a logo: Illustration: Andrew Dyson © Provided by Brisbane Times Illustration: Andrew Dyson

This means the rate at which working-age females are participating in the labour force is now at its highest.

So with female participation continuing to grow strongly over the decades, while male participation has fallen back, the gap between male and female participation is the narrowest it’s been.

Similarly, if you look just at the gender of those with jobs, women’s share is now above 47 per cent. Similar trends are occurring in all the advanced economies, of course.

Debelle says “changing societal norms and rising educational attainment have contributed to more women moving into ... employment outside the home.

Female participation has also been influenced by the increasing flexibility of working-time arrangements, the availability and cost of childcare and policies such as parental leave.”

True. There was a time when most employers thought in terms of full-time workers and not much else – an attitude reinforced by the male-dominated unions.

The increasing use of part-time employment has greatly added to the “flexibility” with which employers can deploy labour within their businesses, and no doubt helped to make them more profitable.

But the fact remains that the advent of part-time employment has been a boon, first, to women seeking a career as well as motherhood, then to full-time university students seeking income while they study, and now to many older workers seeking a mid-point between the extremes of full-time work and retirement.

So the dread “flexibility” can benefit workers as well as bosses.

Debelle says that the participation rate of mothers with dependent children has kept increasing, rising by 10 percentage points since the early 2000s to 73 per cent.

Over the past decade, the rise has been most pronounced for mothers with children aged up to 4.

Of those returning to work within two years after the birth of a child, an increasing majority are citing “financial reasons” as their main reason for doing so.

Others returning to work cite “social interaction” or to “maintain career and skills” as their main reason.

Financial reasons could be capturing a number of considerations, according to Debelle, including low growth in wages, the rise in household debt or childcare costs.

Research suggests the cost and quality of childcare does have a significant effect on the willingness of women to do paid work, he says.

According to the HILDA survey – of household income and labour dynamics in Australia – the share of households using (more expensive) formal childcare for young children has increased notably over the past decade.

Even so, access to childcare places and financial assistance with childcare costs remain “very important” issues for mothers not back at work.

Debelle says the rise in the level of mortgage debt owed by households in recent decades has “broadly coincided” with the increase in women’s rate of participation in the labour force. But which one’s causing what?

Are debt levels higher because more households have two incomes and so can afford to borrow more? (If so, that would suggest the increase in second incomes is helping to push up house prices.)

Or does the need to borrow more to afford the higher prices drive women’s decisions to go back to work? Maybe the low growth in wages in recent years has caused couples to have more debt than they anticipated and thus needing to work more to pay it down.

What little research evidence there is has usually found it’s the higher debt levels that lead to more women going back to work, but the evidence isn’t strong.

Looking beyond the continuing increase in participation by the mothers of young children and the ever-growing workplace role of prime-aged women – 25 to 54 years – of which it is part, women also account for a big part of the swing from early to later retirement.

Do you realise that 60 per cent of women aged 55 to 64 are taking part in the labour force? That compares with 20 per cent or so before the turn of the century. And the rising participation by women 65 and over isn’t all that much less than for men. Times change.

More From Brisbane Times

Brisbane Times
Brisbane Times
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon