Women in the Paid Labour Force: Global Work-Family Challenges and Solutions

By Bahira S. Trask

As an increasing number of women join the global labour-force, families have undergone complex transformations. Specifically, balancing work and home responsibilities has become a global concern. Below, Bahira S. Trask highlights some of the reasons behind these changes and suggests potential strategies and policies that could alleviate the situation.

Around the globe we are witnessing an unprecedented social transformation. An increasing number of women are joining the paid labour force, gaining access to educational opportunities, and becoming socially empowered. According to a recent report by the International Labour Organisation, despite regional variation, “there have never before been so many economically active women”.1 For instance, between 1960 – 2010 the number of women working outside the home for pay escalated from 31 to 49 percent on the North American continent, from 32 to 53 percent in European countries, from 26 to 38 percent in much of the Caribbean, from 16 to 35 percent in Central America, from 17 to 26 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, from 27 to 64 percent in Oceania, and from 21 to 59 percent in South America. Even in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region characterised historically by a high number of gainfully employed women, the numbers increased slightly to approximately 62 percent.2 While impressive, these statistics do not adequately portray intra-regional variation nor the real impact of this phenomenon. In the United States for example, more than 61% of mothers with children under the age of 18, now work in the paid labour force. This would have been virtually unimaginable 30 years ago. And the importance of women’s working for the family economy cannot be overlooked: over 40% of women are the only or primary breadwinners.

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While women are spending longer hours outside of the home, their domestic responsibilities have not necessarily lessened.
Despite rhetoric that emphasises the empowerment of women through paid labour, these social changes have also come with a price: for many women, paid employment has been accompanied by what is often referred to as the “second shift.” While women are spending longer hours outside of the home, their domestic responsibilities have not necessarily lessened. In particular, caring labour – the taking care of children, the sick, the disabled, and the elderly – remains in the purview of the female sphere. Moreover, even for very well-to-do women who can afford to outsource many of their household chores, a social climate prevails in which they must constantly prove that they are good ‘wives, ’ ‘daughters’ and ‘mothers,’ specifically by intensifying their interactions with dependent family members. Particularly noteworthy, is that these same transformations in women’s lives are occurring in the developing world where specifically many poorer women are now working in the paid labour force. Both in the industrialised and the developing world, the shift in women’s roles has been accompanied by equally significant changes in roles for men: they are losing full-time jobs, access to economic resources, and their position as family breadwinners and patriarchs.3 Disturbingly, many of the jobs that men used to hold, jobs with healthcare and retirement benefits, are disappearing and being replaced by temporary or part time work for both women and men.


Globalisation, Neoliberalism, and the Women’s Rights Movement

Many of the changes in work and family life can be attributed to the complex influences of globalisation. A series of interconnected processes have led to an increasingly feminised global labour force, the spread of ideologies advocating gender equality and women’s empowerment, and a move to dual earner families and households headed by women.

While there is much dispute about what globalisation actually is and when it may have begun, there is basic agreement that globalisation is associated with rapid economic and political changes. Primarily, globalisation is often associated with a series of economic processes that have drawn state economies into a broader interconnected global marketplace. Increasingly, globalisation is also understood as a broader construct that encompasses a variety of developments including an increasing flow of capital, goods, people and ideas, as well as massive changes in information and communication exchanges.

However globalisation is defined, the trends associated with this phenomenon are interrelated with a number of other factors including the changing nature of the labour market, the increased popularity of neoliberal policies, and the spread of feminist ideas about women’s emancipation through work.

Globalisation is most commonly thought to have accelerated in the mid to late 1960s. During this period an increasing number of corporations began to move production overseas in order to take advantage of low cost labour, anti-union policies, and the new creation of export processing or free trade zones.4 In certain industries, such as electronics and textiles, female labour became preferred over men’s, because women could be paid less and were less likely to unionise.

The global changes that characterised the last several decades were also accompanied by a fundamental ideological shift with respect to the relationship between states and markets. This shift is most commonly referred to as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is an ideology that is based on the concepts of individualism, the accumulation of private wealth, and the stress on personal responsibility.5 The fundamental premise of neoliberalism is that a democracy is an entity “in which unattached individuals – supposedly making rational choices in an unfettered market – will ultimately lead to a better society.”6 From this perspective, social inequality is understood to be the byproduct of personal choices, personal responsibility and individual failure. It disconnects poverty, unemployment and other social ills from broader structural problems and advocates against collective social action.7

Neoliberal discourse has had a major influence in debates on the role of the state in regulating economic life. Increasingly, markets are portrayed as being competitive with state interests, and that state regulations do not serve in the best interest of the market. Despite this increasingly popular ideological persuasion, the deregulation of markets has not, necessarily worked to the advantage of employees or their employers. Work policies that used to be, at least in part, set by state regulations, have moved under the purview of employers. Especially for smaller employers, this often causes serious conflicts of interest between employers and employees. And the decrease in overall state support has had significant negative impacts, particularly in developing societies, on families and women specifically.

During the same period that global markets were undergoing transformation, the Western women’s rights movement of the mid-1960s gained world-wide momentum. Its primary message was that women would become empowered if they gained access to paid employment. Thus, as certain global industry sectors expanded and women, particularly married women (a group that traditionally did not work), entered the paid labour force, a complex synergy of ideology, need, and labour coincided. As Beneria, a well-known feminist economist has succinctly explained: supply met demand.8

These recent social changes have created serious dilemmas for both individuals and their employers. Women and men increasingly need to balance their work-life responsibilities in a climate where their jobs are more precarious. Concurrently, employers are being urged to offer benefits and services that are responsive to the needs of their employees while constantly having to stay competitive in a globalising, economically precarious environment.

In this article I briefly outline some of the ideological, economic and social changes that have led to the current situation and I offer some potential policy suggestions and strategies for employers and employees. However, I propose these solutions with the caveat that there is not a “one size fits all” solution. Instead, I suggest that through awareness, reflection and dialogue we can create an environment that is more mindful and that works to the benefit of women and men and their families, while also meeting the needs of employers and businesses.

Women are much more likely to have children if they know that there are social supports in place that will allow them to balance work and family responsibilities. When those supports are not available, women choose to work and not to have children.


Transformations in Families

The processes of globalisation and the ideological persuasions of the women’s movement changed social life, and families specifically. As women moved into the global labour force, their economic contributions increasingly became more prized than their domestic skills, even in non-Western contexts. Thus, in many parts of the industrialised and developing world, having a good education and being gainfully employed have become pre-requisites for marriage.

Policy analyses in several north European countries that were suffering from dangerously low fertility levels have indicated that there are also strong linkages between fertility and employment: women are much more likely to have children if they know that there are social supports in place that will allow them to balance work and family responsibilities. When those supports are not available, women choose to work and not to have children.9 Thus, the linkages between what are seen as private familial choices and the public good have become much more visible when viewed through the work-family lens.

The feminisation of the global labour force has been accompanied by a re-negotiation of roles in families. In the industrialised world, we are increasingly moving to what is often called “gender role convergence”.10 In other words, the roles and responsibilities of women and men are beginning to become very similar both at work and at home. Thus, in Western middle-class families we are witnessing a slow shift away from patriarchal norms to more egalitarian decision-making and role distribution between women and men. This trend is not, however, as common in the developing world where public rhetoric often still emphasises the traditional homemaker/caretaker roles for women, and the economic provider/head of household roles for men. Even when women work outside of the home, strong social and cultural norms advocate that they fulfill their domestic responsibilities, often without the assistance of the men in their lives.11

Workplace Tensions

Complicating this situation is that as more and more women have entered the labour force, the ideal worker model has spread throughout the world. Most contemporary workplaces are characterised by the expectation that an individual is committed to his or her career over the long term, without interrupted employment, with very long working hours, and with the unspoken assumption that there is someone at home who takes care of domestic responsibilities. Despite rhetoric about work-family balance, this model has gained primacy in the market driven economies that are now found all over the globe.12 In today’s volatile economic climate, emphasising job over family responsibilities is often the only realistic choice.

Work-family balance remains especially complex for women. Virtually every research study indicates that women are perceived differently (and often negatively) in comparison to men at the workplace. Especially once they have children, women are often thought to be less “dedicated” to their jobs or not as engaged with their work responsibilities.13 They are expected and often need to work in jobs with long hours. They are also part of another often more insidious dialogue: one that presumes that their primary identity should come from relationships with men and as caregivers. This forces many women to have to choose where to focus their energy despite the risks entailed in either privileging their jobs or their families. For women around the world, work-family negotiation has become an increasingly complex balancing act.

The OECD and the ILO have documented that countries that have responded to changing family contexts by putting in place supportive policies for individuals and employers, are seeing an upswing in productivity,


Responding to Global Changes

Addressing work-family balance is problematic because in response to globalisation and neoliberal ideological persuasions, most states have lessened economic regulations and social supports and services for their citizens.14 Moreover, in the developing world, many other social and development concerns crowd the agendas of policymakers.15 However, research indicates that addressing work-family issues and the changing roles of women and men with stronger domestic economic policies and better supports for citizens, actually raises the quality of life for individuals and leads to greater productivity. The OECD and the ILO have documented that countries that have responded to changing family contexts by putting in place supportive policies for individuals and employers, are seeing an upswing in productivity, job satisfaction and fertility levels.16


What Can Be Done?

In order to accelerate the dialogue on these global concerns, I suggest some potential policy reforms and strategies for employers and employees. These recommendations are based on empirical research that indicates that reducing stress levels for employees increases focus and motivation, as well as attrition rates. Studies also indicate that employees do not abuse initiatives that are put into place to ease work-family tensions. The holistic approach outlined here advocates for a life course perspective that takes into account the needs of employees at varying points in their lives and for the need for dialogue and partnerships between the various constituencies in order to create workable solutions for what have become global concerns.

Workplace Recommendations for Employers

• Institute policies that allow employees to take short leaves for both planned or unplanned incidents
• Allow for flexible schedules that permit parents to coordinate their work schedules with their children’s school schedules and that allow for emergency situations
• Initiate paid leave for both new mothers and fathers and for caretaking responsibilities that entail ill family members
• Provide a menu of choices for employees to choose from as this allows them to figure out individual solutions to their particular family – work situations
• Disregard the myth that work-family issues are only of importance to women
• Workplace Recommendations for States
• Establish a governmental fund that is a type of social insurance (similar to social security) so that small businesses in particular are not economically disadvantaged by instituting paid leaves;
• Provide increased access to quality child care and early childhood education;
• Increase skills based training as part of the public educational system
• Form public-private partnerships with 3rd party vendors for day care, adult day care, and after school provisions for working parents;
• Workplace Recommendations for Employees
• Identify a support system in your workplace;
• Create a clear daily / weekly schedule with clear metrics and results;
• Be proactive in trying to negotiate flexible schedules, telecommuting and job sharing arrangements;
• Suggest a trial period for new work arrangements to prove that productivity does not decline.

About the Author

Dr. Bahira Trask, Ph.D. (bstrask@udel.edu) is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Delaware, USA. Her research focuses on family change, gender and economics, and globalisation. Her latest book: Women, Work and Globalization: Challenges and Opportunities has just been published by Routledge (2014).


1. International Labour Organisation (2007). Global employment trends for women. Geneva: International Labour Organisation (Brief, 2007).

2. United Nations. (2010). The world’s women 2010: Trends and statistics. Publication of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. New York: United Nations. International Labor Organization (ILO). (2013). Statistics and databases. http://www.ilo.org/global/statistics-and-databases/lang–en/index.htm

3. Connell, R.W. (2005). Change among the gatekeepers: Men, masculinities, and gender equality in the global arena. Signs, 30, 1801 – 1825.

4. Freeman, C. (2000). High tech and high heels in the global economy. Women, work, and pink-collar identities in the Caribbean. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

5. O’Connell, P. (2007). On reconciling irreconcilables: Neo-liberal globalisation and human rights. Human Rights Law Review, 7, 483 – 509.

Keddie, A. (2010). Neo-liberalism and new configurations of global space: Possibilities, tensions and problematics for gender justice. Journal of Gender Studies, 19, 139 – 152.

6. Apple, M. (2005). Are new markets in education democratic? Neoliberal globalism, vouchers, and the politics of choice. In M. Apple, J. Kenway & M. Singh (Eds.), Globalisation education: Policies, pedagogies, and politics (pp. 209-230). New York: Peter Lang.

7. See again, O’Connell (2007).

8. Benería, L. (2003). Gender, development, and globalisation: Economics as if all people mattered. New York: Routledge

9. See both of these articles: Esping-Andersen, G. (1999). Social foundations of post-industrial societies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Esping-Andersen, G. (2000). The sustainability of welfare states into the twenty-first century. International Journal of Health services, 30, 1-12.

10. Bianchi, S., Robinson, J., & Mikie, M. (2007). Changing rhythms of American family life. NY, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

11. Mokomane, Z. (2011). Work-family balance: Overview of policies in developing countries. UNDESPA Publication. New York: United Nations.

12. This is not to say that people stay at the same jobs for 30 or 40 years as in the past. Instead, benefits accrue by staying in the labour market and not interrupting employment for family responsibilities.

13. Gottfried, H. & Reese, L. (2003). Gender, policy, politics, and work: Feminist comparative and transnational research. Review of Policy Research, 20, 3 – 20.

Gerson, K. (2004). Understanding work and family through a gender lens. Community, Work & Family, 7, 163 – 178.

Giele, J.Z. (2006). The changing gender contract as the engine of work-and-family policies. Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis, 8,115 – 128.

14. Keddie, A. (2010). Neo-liberalism and new configurations of global space: Possibilities, tensions and problematics for gender justice. Journal of Gender Studies, 19, 139 – 152.

Carrington, V. (2001). Globalisation, family and nation-state: Reframing ‘family’ in new times. Discourse: Studies in the cultural politics of education, 22, 185-19

15. Mokomane, Z. (2011). Work-family balance: Overview of policies in developing countries. UNDESPA Publication. New York: United Nations.

16 See ILO (2007) and Esping Anderson (2000)



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