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In most contemporary industrialised nations, women’s participation rates have been rising. Since the 1980s, women’s employment has become more continuous, even among mothers with children. (Lewis, 2009:27) However, despite of the optimistic rising employment rate among women, the career break due to motherhood still has a major impact on women’s careers. Some women opt for part-time jobs after giving birth to child/children while some might exit the labour till their children reach school ages. This essay aims to examine the impact of motherhood on women’s career in terms of women’s work and care decision and type of works mothers do under different contingencies. As Windebank (2001:269) points out that there are great variations in mother’s employment participation rates and career patterns across countries, this essay mainly focuses on mothers’ career choices and patterns in two countries, namely Sweden (a generous welfare country which striving for women’s equality) and the United Kingdom. The first part of the essay briefly talks about the general impacts of motherhood on women’s career followed by the descriptions of women’s career choices (e.g. work or care decision) and career patterns (e.g. full-time VS. part-time, types of work mothers do) in the two countries mentioned. In the final part, the possible explanations to the patterns found in both countries will be addressed, such as the economic incentive, social norms, institutional context, and women’s education level. And the essay will be concluded by summarizing the impacts of motherhood on women’s career and discussing its implications for policy makers.
Motherhood’s Impact on Women’s Career
The evidence (Vlasblom and Schippers, 2006:335) shows that motherhood could have impacts on women’s participation rate both before and after the childbirth. In their article, the female participation rates in all three countries, namely the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom, have declined since 12 months before the childbirth and never return to the original level 24 months after the childbirth. Hewlett (2005) also states that 37% of women take some kind of break from work to achieve appropriate work-life balance. Although 93% of those women who taken a break after give a birth to children want to re-enter the job market, only 74% are successful, among these only 40% return to full time work. The statistics suggests that motherhood does affect women’s career to a different degrees and it could last over a long period of time.
In general, motherhood itself presents four choices for women. First, women could remain in their full-time jobs after giving birth to their child/children. Second, they could choose a more flexible job or a part-time work to achieve work life balance after becoming a mother. Third, women could choose to exit the labour force permanently for their families. Forth, women could leave the labour market temporarily and return to work after a while (e.g. when their child/children reach school age) (Vlasblom and Schippers, 2006:330). However, women who take the last option might find difficult to return to the labour market. As Joshi et al (1996) point out that losing of tie with the labour market due to the complete exit could depreciate women’s human capital and make future entrance difficult. Therefore, the longer a mother is out of the labour force, the harder it is for her to return to work.
Mother’s Career Choices and Patterns in Sweden
Being one of the most generous welfare states, Sweden is often regarded as a “role model” in terms of striving for equal women rights. In fact, most Swedish women work fulltime prior to give birth and the majority of women do return to paid work (either long part-time or full-time) after the maternity leave. According to the Statistics Sweden (a leading Swedish official statistics website), there are more than 80 percent of Swedish mothers in the labour market by the year of 1999. The high return rate is probably attributed to its long paid parental leave. According to the Swedish Law, all parents (employed prior to give birth) are entitled to 12 months leave with approximately 3,600 Pounds income replacement (up to 80% of their income before childbirth) plus 90 days of ‘Guaranteed days’ with 6 pounds per day. Besides, parents’ rights to return to labour market are guaranteed by Swedish labour regulations. (Bjornberg, 2002:34) These policies not only help women to reconcile the work and care balance during the most difficult period (with small child under 1 year old), but also encourage women to take part in workforce after maternity work by ensuring them better chances of being employed. As a result, child under 1 year is usually taken care at home by their parents (mainly mothers). And among children aged 1-6 years, institutional care instead of home care is commonly chosen by Swedish parents as that most mothers could return to their jobs afterwards. The statistics (Statistics Sweden, 2008) shows that 86% of children aged 1-6 years are in municipal day care in the year 2007. Based on the observations, Bjornberg (2002:39) suggests that the traditional male breadwinner model with mothers as housewives is not supported in Sweden rather a dual-earner model is more common and acceptable in Sweden.
The high return rate does not occur among mothers with one child but among mothers with more than one child as well. As the Swedish policy states that the parent is able to enjoy the same insured income level if the next child-birth is within 30 months of the previous child. Thus, it makes possible for mothers with more than one child to return to labour market after maternity leave without worrying about the costs and losing their working rights.
It is interesting to note that many returned mothers in Sweden choose to start work as part-timers. Traditionally, part-time work often associated with characteristics such as low pay, no benefits and low status, however, part-time work in Sweden has a different meaning. The long working hours (e.g. 30 hours per week) gives part-time a non-marginalized feature in Sweden. And part-time working mothers are generally treated similarly to their full-time colleagues and able to have more autonomy in their time (Sundstrom and Duvander, 2000). Fagan and Lallement (2000:45) indicate that part-time workers have integrated into Swedish labour market and received “equal treatment in labour law and wage structures”.
Mother’s Career Choices and Patterns in the United Kingdom
Pursuing to be a “liberal welfare state”, the U.K. government has also come up with explicit policies to reconcile paid work and family life in terms of childcare services, childcare leave and flexible working hours since 1997. (Lewis and Campbell, 2007:4) Evidence shows that the newly introduced “family-friendly” initiatives do have certain effects in changing the British labour market situations. The mother participation rate in the market has increased from 24% in 1979 to 67% in 1999 (Dench et al., 2002) although among returned mothers, many engage in part-time rather than full-time jobs. Statistics (Social Trends, 2005) shows that 40% of women aged sixteen to fifty-nine with children are in a part-time job. However, the part-time work has a different definition in UK compare to that of Sweden in terms of the working hours. Part-time mothers only work about 16 hours per week in U.K. (Bishop, 2004) which is much shorter than 30+ hours in Sweden. In the aspect of public childcare system, it is not as popular as that of Sweden due to the poor qualification of childcare staff in UK and a lack of funding. (Lewis and Campbell, 2007)
In general, instead of the traditional male breadwinner model or Swedish dual-earner model, Britain parents are taking a one-and-a-half earner model, which fathers work long hours (48+ hours per week) while mothers work short hours (about 16 hours). (Christine and Tang, 2004) Therefore, atypical job (e.g. part-time work) and shift parenting are common in UK. (Lavalle et al., 2002)
Explanations to the Patterns Found
Based on the findings of both Sweden and UK, it is clear that motherhood affects women’s career not only in the form of career breaks during childbirth but also in terms of the after-effects on balancing work and childcare. There are several similarities found among working mothers in both countries, for instance, both countries have a relatively high mother return rate. However, part-time mothers in Sweden are seemingly to enjoy a better benefit coverage, status and pay compared to mothers in U.K. In the following part of the essay, the reasons account for the different patterns observed will be discussed and whether the high return rate reflects women’s true preference between work and family will be explored.
According to Hakim (2000), the difference in work and care decision made by mothers is determined by each woman’s preference. However, many researchers criticize Hakim’s statement by showing other factors which restricting women’s decisions, such as the income level of the household, institutional context, social norm and women’s education level.
Household Income Level
Household income level directly limits mother’s decision on work and care. According to Vlasblom and Schippers (2006), mothers are more likely to go back to labour market if the benefit for participation is larger than its opportunity costs. For instance, most mothers in Sweden choose to work as women’s income in a household is as important as their partners’ in order to maintain a high living standard “as close as possible to those of households without children”.( Bjornberg, 2002:36)
In the case of U.K., the decrease in family subsidy in tax system during the 1990s has made childcare more costly, (Sainsbury, 1999) as a result, many British mothers chose to return to workforce during that time. However, unlike Sweden, high quality and affordable public childcare is not widely spread in U.K. According to Taylor’s survey (2003), there are only 8 % of organizations offering financial assistance with childcare costs and 3% organizations providing childcare for their employees. Thus, the lack of childcare service and the high costs associated with childcare outsourcing for working parents has explained the increasing number of part-time working mothers and the shifting childcare arrangement between parents in U.K.
Under the traditional male breadwinner model, mothers are expected to become housewives while fathers will be the only income source for the household. However, as time passes by, the social norm has been changed and working mothers are more acceptable in both countries (Vlasblom and Schippers, 2006). And in Sweden, women to have a gainful employment before childbirth is essential as the replacement income during 12 months maternity leave is determined by women’s salary level prior to giving birth. Those mothers who were housewives do not receive any income benefit during the first year of child care (Bjornberg, 2002). Such policies, to a certain extent, have reinforced the women’s importance in the job market and increased the acceptance of women’s role as workers in general.
However, in both countries, the increasing in women participation rate and social acceptance of working mothers does not match the changes in their male spouses’ behaviours. Gershuny (2000) points out that men’s participation in unpaid work is much lower than women’s participation rate in paid work. According to Elvin-Nowak and Thomsson (2001:432), father’s work schedule is considered as fixed and unalterable and mothers concern about children’s well-being more than fathers do, as a result, “the negotiations come to rest between the woman and her conscience rather than between the mother and the father.” Uneven distribution of domestic chores, especially childcare is still prevalent nowadays. In U.K., the long working hours of men has left the childcare to mothers mainly. Without the help from their spouses, it is more difficult for mothers to combine the work and childcare and thus, full-time work is often not an available option for many British mothers. The situation in Sweden is relatively better than that in U.K. due to the introduction of compulsory “Daddy Month” policy. However, “Even in country like Sweden, fathers only spend just half the time in taking care of children as their partners do” (Gornick and Meyers, 2008:318).
Institutional context is one of the most critical factor in shaping women’s work and care decision. Often, the change in mother’s behaviour is as a result of change in institutional policies, such as the reduced in family subsidy mentioned above. Both British government and Swedish government are aiming to promote waged labour through its policies, like extension of maternity leave, childcare provision or flexible working-hour practices, in order to attract mothers into workforce and to increase the labour supply and tax base (OECD, 2005). However, these two countries have varied degree of success in obtaining the goal.
The difference in institutional policies explains why the part-time mothers in Sweden could focus on their work better than those of U.K. First of all, the public childcare is well-developed and widely used in Sweden, therefore, most Swedish women are able to work long hour part-time or full-time job without worrying lack of proper care for their children. Besides, the introduction of “Daddy Month” in Sweden has increased the father’s participation in childcare task and thus, reduces the burden from mothers. According to the statistics, 77% of father in Sweden took up the whole month leave in 1995.
However, the formal childcare is either too expensive or poorly organized in U.K. which forces most British mothers to care children privately and restricts their career development. Besides, the long working hours for British fathers makes sharing private childcare more difficult and often mothers have to change their working hours in order to suit their partner’s more rigid schedules for childcare. Thus, mothers’ career in U.K. is more likely to be disturbed than their counterpart in Sweden.
Women’s Educational Level
Besides the differences in external factors, such as the policies, income and social norms, the educational level among women also affect the degree of motherhood’s impacts on their careers. The educational level here not only refers to the initial education (Portela, 2001), but also the working experiences and personal capabilities a woman possesses. Elvin-Nowak and Thomsson (2001:407) suggests that mothers with “different social background” have different motherhood experiences and interpreted the meaning of the motherhood differently.
In general, low-skilled female workers are more likely to exit the labour force for their children than those high-skilled workers (Cantillon at al., 2001). And Hofferth et al.’s (1996) study is consistent with Cantillon’s findings, showing that high-skilled women tend to use formal childcare while low-skilled women tend to provide childcare themselves. As a result, high-skilled women are more likely to commit themselves into their work without worrying about the childcare. At the same time, with the high earnings gained from work, they are able to afford the formal childcare while for the low-skilled women who cannot afford the formal childcare with the low earnings, staying at home to look after their children becomes the only option for them. In UK, 75 percent of highly educated women with children aged under 5 years old are actively participate in paid work while only 24 percent of women without qualifications are in workforce. (EOR, 2001) Similar results are found among Swedish women too.
Besides, Sundstrom and Duvander (2000) found that parents with higher educational level are more likely to share the domestic tasks including childcare than couples with lower educational level. Therefore, it confirms the view that women whose level of education is high is more likely to take part in work.
This essay has examined the motherhood impact on women’s career choice and patterns in Sweden and the U.K. The findings show that both countries have an increasing mother participation rate. But despite of the optimistic rising working mother numbers in both countries, working mothers’ careers are still affected by the motherhood. Not only that full-time work option is no longer available for many mothers due to the burden of childcare, part-time working mothers are generally more difficult to concentrate on their jobs, especially in the U.K where formal provision of formal childcare system is not well-developed. Besides, possible factors, such as household income level, social norms, institutional policies and women’s educational level, which restrict mother’s work and care decision, are explored in the essay. However, there are many other factors which could shape the motherhood’s impact on women’s career, for instance, the number of children. Women with smaller family size have less career breaks and spend less time on childcare, thus they have better opportunity to channel their energy into paid work (Gill et al., 2000). Besides, the rising divorce rate and high teenage pregnancy rate result an increase in singe-mother families. Motherhood’s impact on single mother family could be different from normal families.
After analyzing the possible factors which affect working mothers’ careers, how their accessibility to the labour market and status could be increased is the key challenge that should be addressed. Based on Sweden and the U.K. cases, it is clear that institutional policies could a powerful tool for creating a better environment for working mothers. For instance, the “Daddy Month” introduced by Swedish government has been successful in tackling the unequal division of work among men and women and this policy could be learnt by other countries too. In sum, in order to increase working mother’s full-time participation rate and achieve better work-life balance in the society, governments should invest more on the institutional policies. In another word, following the concept of “diversity/mainstreaming”, government should change the focus from trying to fit working mothers into the society to changing the society/organization/culture to embrace differences by making working mothers’ issue central to every aspect of the policy.
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