Full-time trade-off between status and family

What is the effect of working full time after having children? A new study shows that while there are status gains, the trade-off may be a smaller family.

Is working full time after having children worth it? Does it bring better promotion prospects? Or does it lead to relationship breakdowns and unhappiness?

New research suggests the answer is not as clear-cut as many might like to think. What it does show is that women who work full time are much more likely to have only one child.

The study by Susan McRae, professor of sociology at Oxford Brookes University, is published in a new book, Women and Employment – the same book which includes the controversial study by Cambridge professor Jacqueline Scott that found women are now less likely to believe that working does not damage their children than they were in the 1980s.

This study threw up lots of sensational headlines with claims that it showed women were fed up with juggling everything and would prefer to stay at home.

In fact, the report contains a lot of very considered discussion on why attitudes might be changing on the work/life balance issue. In the introduction to the book, Professor Scott and her co-editors talk of the “overwhelming” case for promoting greater equality in employment, but add that this is unlikely to bring much change for women so long as “the share of family care between men and women remains so uneven”.


Professor McRae’s study looks at the effects of full-time employment on mothers. Of women who had their first child in 1988, just over a quarter worked continuously during the following 11 years, with only 14% of this number working full time.

It found that those staying in full-time continuous employment were less likely to lose their pre-birth occupational level. Part-time workers who worked continuously were also able to maintain their job level better than those who worked intermittently, except those in management or in certain professional posts.

Those who work continuously after childbirth are also likely to be paid at a higher rate than those who work intermittently. As far as promotion is concerned, only full-timers are likely to benefit, although most are more likely to stay at the same level than climb up the greasy pole.

Professor McRae says full-timers are more likely than part-timers to become single parents, but no more likely than women who work intermittently.

However, she points to “one significant difference” between full-timers and others: full-timers were much less likely to have any other children.

“Mothers employed continuously full-time were the most likely to have only one child and the least likely to have three or more children,” she says.

A third of continuous full-timers had only one child. Good, reliable – and generally paid – childcare was a huge factor too and easier to afford if the women had fewer children. Some 71% of full-timers said childcare problems had never affected their job opportunities.

Long hours culture

Professor McRae does not believe, however, that childcare is the only issue affecting why full-timers have fewer children.

She says two thirds of the women who worked full time continuously since giving birth to their first child were in high level positions. “Often such jobs are synonymous with long working hours and other pressures on family life,” she says.

“To combine this type of employment with motherhood is likely to mean that a trade-off between working hours and numbers of children will be made: longer hours and fewer children; fewer hours and more children.”

Another factor is the attitude of the women’s partners to the work/life issue.

“It seems highly likely,” concludes Professor McRae, “that the labour market benefits gained from maintaining continuity of employment on a full-time basis after motherhood can carry a high price tag.”

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