Few women want to work full-time, all the time

I attended a seminar in Barcelona the other week at which one of the most fascinating papers was delivered by Catherine Hakim from the sociology department at the London School of Economics.

It was titled ‘What do women really want? Designing family policies for all women’. Hakim is a long-standing critic of policies designed to suit only women who wish to have a full-time career. She is particularly critical of EU advocacy of policies designed towards this end.

Hakim has done a lot of research in this area and what she finds is that women are a pretty varied bunch in terms of the sort of work/life balance they seek.

Looking at figures from different parts of the world, she finds that only a small minority of women want to work full-time or stay at home full-time with their children.

For example, when women aged over 16 in Britain are asked about their preferred work-life balance, only 14 percent want to work full-time throughout their lives, only 17 percent want to stay at home full-time with their kids, while the remaining 69 percent (called ‘adaptive’, as in they wish to adapt their work-life balance) want something in between.

These figures hold true in other countries with only small variation, for example in Spain, Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic.

So-called ‘adaptive’ women vary among themselves in terms of what they want. What they have in common is a wish not to work full-time all the time.

But some want to drop out of the workforce for the first few years of their children’s lives and then go back in, while others want to work continuously (except maybe for maternity leave) but perhaps opt for part-time work instead of full-time work after they have kids.

What’s also interesting is how many women have not achieved their preferred work-life balance. For example, of British women in full-time work, only 24 percent want full-time work, 14 percent would rather be at home with the children, while 62 percent want something in between.

And yet, so much of social policy assumes that 100 percent of women want full-time work right throughout their working lives when in fact only a small minority seek this.

Clearly, Governments should not pursue one-size-fits-all policies in this regard. They should instead pursue policies that help women to achieve the work-life balance they actually want. Women are heterogeneous, not homogeneous.