Academic journal article Population

Increased Women's Labour Force Participation in Europe: Progress in the Work-Life Balance or Polarization of Behaviours?

Academic journal article Population

Increased Women's Labour Force Participation in Europe: Progress in the Work-Life Balance or Polarization of Behaviours?

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

The development of female labour market participation in most European countries dates back to the 1970s. At the outset it was viewed negatively as a potential factor of increased unemployment and as one of the main causes of the simultaneous fertility decline observed at that time. However, the image of working women improved in the 1980s and especially in the 1990s. There are several reasons for this, including the beneficial effects of productivity gains and the economic growth generated by the employment of a relatively qualified workforce. Higher female employment helps to rebalance the economic dependency ratio, and is good for the long-term financing of social security systems faced with the costs of an ageing population. It can also be a response to the problem of growing family poverty. Last, the emergence of a positive correlation between fertility rates and the female employment rate in OECD countries from the end of the 1990s (which had been negative until the mid- 1980s) gave credence to the idea that women's labour force participation could increase without lowering fertility levels (Ahn and Mira, 2002; D'Addio-Dervaux and Mira d'Ercole, 2005).

Despite this more favourable climate, several issues remain unresolved. The first concerns the nature of the change reflected in the switch from a negative to positive association between fertility rates and female labour participation. For Engelhardt et al. (2004) and Kögel (2004), the positive correlation observed at country level does not imply that the relationship between "demand for children" and "supply of labour" at micro-individual level is necessarily positive. On the contrary, it remains negative because women with fewer children are more likely to work in all countries. But that observation is not incompatible with the fact that the highest female employment rates are found in the countries that also have the highest fertility rates. At the same time, the incompatibility between fertility and female labour participation has decreased in most OECD countries, in part as a result of government policies to help parents reconcile their work and family lives (Ahn and Mira, 2002; OECD, 2007).

The second issue concerns the development of part-time work and its contribution to the growth of female employment. In fact, its role is ambiguous since it coincides with the process of developing labour market "flexibility" and reconciling the work-life balance. Part-time work provides access to employment for categories of women who would not otherwise have been able to work. But it can also serve to marginalize women since the jobs are often concentrated in so-called "secondary" market sectors, with low wages, poor working conditions and limited career prospects (Blossfeld and Hakim, 1997). Furthermore, wages from part-time work are not always sufficient to move out of poverty or provide women with real economic independence, and do not guarantee the "emancipation" that work is supposed to provide.

Since the early 1990s, a vast corpus of comparative literature has been devoted to understanding inter-country differences in women's labour market behaviour. These analyses identify different "regimes" of female activity corresponding to behaviour patterns linked to their family situations, and in which part-time work has a variable role. These differences are anchored in a diversity of modes of regulation governing the link between public policies and family solidarity, gender relations and labour market organization. However, the groups of countries identified in terms of the work-family relationship only partly coincide with the broader typology of welfare state regimes proposed by G. Esping-Andersen in the early 1990s (Esping-Andersen G., 1990; Gornick et al., 1997; Thévenon, 2006; Meulders and O'Dorchai, 2007). This typology does not reflect the full range of different labour market behaviours, and the trends observed are relatively contrasting, depending on the scope of the worklife balance policies deployed in each country (OECD, 2007). …

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