Academic journal article International Education Studies

Voices from the Working Lives Project: The Push-Pull of Work and Care

Academic journal article International Education Studies

Voices from the Working Lives Project: The Push-Pull of Work and Care

Article excerpt

Abstract

A recent policy direction in many OECD countries has been to increase workforce participation for women of childbearing age; a policy direction which seemingly runs counter to a need for improved work-life balance for women themselves. This article explores the impact of this somewhat contradictory 'push-pull' of policy by examining some difficulties of workforce participation, transition and re-entry articulated by female case study participants from an Australian Research Council funded study, which examined the career decision-making of contemporary Australian workers. Against a backdrop of the larger study, this article features detail from interviews with skilled women workers on their return from maternity leave, particularly addressing their difficult transitions between work and care and their varying responses to workplace marginalisation. In light of policy initiatives aimed to boost workforce participation, this article aims to contribute to raising the profile of issues surrounding the cost of parenting to contemporary women.

Keywords: Australia, gender, life course transitions, work-life balance, workforce participation

1. Introduction

Many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, including Australia, are facing an ongoing shortage of qualified young people in a number of skilled occupations (Richardson, 2007). The current era is also characterised by rapid technological change, an ageing workforce, and transformations of traditional patterns of work (Skills Australia., 2009, 2010, 2011). An important policy initiative, particularly in response to an ageing workforce, has been to increase the workforce participation of women who are of childbearing age in many countries, including Australia (Jaumotte, 2003/02; Schmid, 2006; Skills Australia., 2010). However, this direction in policy seemingly runs counter to a need for improved work-life balance for women themselves (Jamieson & Morton, 2005; Jeanes, Knights, & Martin, 2011; Yerkes, Standing, Wattis, & Wain, 2010).

In relation to the Australian political landscape, this 'push-pull' of policy has been identified by Walter (2005) and Hill (2006) and has even been called "contradictory" (in relation to women's partnered status) (Andrew, 2008, p. 374). It has been argued that past Australian governments have expressed ambivalence about whether to "support women as home-based carers, wage earners, or both" (Brennan, 2007, p. 31). Tensions between incentives to care and work in Australia have been the focus of considerable research throughout the last decade (Burgess & Strachan, 2005; Craig, Mullan, & Blaxland, 2010; Pocock, 2003). More recently, analysts have identified as regressive the policy settings that were in place from the late 1990s to 2006 (Craig, et al., 2010; Maddison & Partridge, 2007).

This article explores the impact of this somewhat contradictory 'push-pull' of policy, by examining some difficulties faced in workforce participation, transition and re-entry surrounding maternity leave, articulated by female case study participants from a larger study which examined the career decision-making of contemporary Australian workers. The data presented in this article is drawn from the Working Lives project (Fehring, Malley, & Robinson, 2008) which was an Australian Research Council (ARC) funded Linkage Project undertaken between 2006 and 2009. It involved a multidisciplinary research team from RMIT University, NCVER (National Centre for Vocational Education and Research), DEECD (Department of Education and Early Childhood Department, Victoria) and The Skilled Group. The initial investigation was a small-scale exploratory study which mapped and compared the work, benefit and skill (WBS) trajectories of trade and higher education completers who graduated from RMIT University in Australia, a dual-sector educational institution, between 1994 and 1996. The fundamental aim of the research was to explore the reasons why workers in their first ten years of post-qualification working life made certain career changes over others. …

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