Can tweaking the male breadwinner model ever lead to equity?

Image taken from suyensedai’s photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

Image taken from suyensedai’s photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

Apparently the male breadwinner is alive and kicking in Australia. This comes as no surprise. The latest statistics show that women make up just 35% of the full time work force in Australia but women comprise the majority (70%) of all part-time workers with nearly half (46%) of all women working in Australia working part-time.

Different countries have different cultural expectations around women and work – particularly in regard to working mothers. Germany is particularly conservative: Women are encouraged to be stay-at-home mothers and those who return to work are often labelled “raven mothers”. Germany has also adopted economic policies that encourage women to remain at home to care for their children. In contrast the cultural expectation for French women is that they will work full-time after having children and France has one of the highest rates of women in full-time work in the OECD (approximately 70% of working women are full-time). Just like Germany, social attitudes and government policies have contributed to the development of the cultural expectations around working mothers in France – but with a very different outcome. Interestingly the fertility rate in Germany where the traditional male breadwinner model is encouraged is 1.39 births per woman whereas in France the rate is 2.0 births per woman.

What cultures have been established around women, work and child rearing here that are pushing or influencing women into part-time work in Australia? Perhaps it’s more that our workplace cultures haven’t really moved with the times. Sure we have introduced innovative work spaces and ideas into some companies but the model of the standard job being full-time 9-5 hasn’t ever really changed or been challenged. The demands of some corporate cultures also mean that many full-time jobs require much more time than a 35-40 hour week.

Research conducted by both the Productivity Commission and the OECD notes that the main factors influencing women in Australia to choose part-time work are the cost and availability of child care and the way that women and men share work and caring responsibilities. Research also shows that most women working part-time do so by choice and that women who work full-time are more likely to want to reduce their hours than women working part-time wish to increase theirs. Whilst examining women’s preferences for part-time work is important we also need to look at the role of pressures and additional (usually unpaid) work undertaken by women that influence their choices.

The historical model of the male breadwinner relied on housewives to keep the home-front running smoothly. Although women now make up 46% of the total workforce in Australia and modern mothers have undoubtedly joined the ranks of the working, there has been no corresponding drop in the working hours of fathers. The Productivity Commission report into part-time work in Australia has noted an increase in part-time work for men but this is largely the result of single fathers or men with no children taking up part-time hours – only 6% of coupled fathers worked part-time. The Families in Australia 2011 report also found that only about 7% of families report having a female breadwinner. For many families in Australia when kids come along there is an increasingly uneven skew between paid and unpaid work with women taking on more of the unpaid responsibilities.

We’re told women have more “choices” now if they have kids – they can choose to be a stay-at-home mum, to work full-time, or to work part-time. It’d be more accurate to say women have a range of constrained choices available to them. When blessed with apparently “flexible” work most mothers actually find themselves doing the splits with one foot in work and the other in family, their legs being stretched tighter and tighter. The only way to ease the pain for many is to reduce working hours. Sadly many fathers have found that they’ve only been granted flexibility in the workplace when family responsibilities have been undeniably forced upon them through separation or divorce. Men are stuck in full-time work in the same way that many women are stuck out of it.

Australian women have been told we needed to embrace a nanny culture in order to fix the perennial problem of the juggle between work and family. Yet this “solution” remains inaccessible to many and undesirable to those who want to spend more, not less time with their kids. We need to dare to imagine different ways of working that will allow a more equitable spread of paid and unpaid work and allow both men and women to spend time with their children.

In the 1930s Kellogg (of the cereal fame) introduced a 30 hour week. Workers were paid slightly less, but were happier, healthier, spent more time with their families and productivity at Kellogg’s actually rose. Unfortunately WWII brought an end to this experiment. Eva Cox has been a long time advocate of the 30 hour week. A 30 hour week is just one option that could be taken up. Others have argued for us to start thinking about broader classification for work to encourage a better spread of work models than just full-time and part-time.

In Australia we’re stuck in what is called a modified breadwinner model – essentially we’ve just tweaked the 1950s male breadwinner model to try to suit the modern era. But can just tweaking it bring true equity? I’m not sure it can. Perhaps for equity to be achieved we need to dare to envisage more radical solutions to the problem of the mismatch between breadwinning and child rearing – solutions that allow both men and women to participate meaningfully in work and care.

Image from thanks to suyensedai. 

About greenleftyidealist

Green, left and idealistic. A mum, a runner, a rogainer, a public servant and wanna be writer. My dog is golden.
This entry was posted in equity, feminism, parenting, society, women, work and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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