Women, Men, Work and Family in Europe

Lesley Patterson (Sociology Programme, School of People,Environment and Planning,Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand)

Gender in Management

ISSN: 1754-2413

Article publication date: 9 May 2008



Patterson, L. (2008), "Women, Men, Work and Family in Europe", Gender in Management, Vol. 23 No. 3, pp. 225-228. https://doi.org/10.1108/17542410810866962



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Who does what and when, and under what circumstances with which consequences, is of perennial interest to social scientists. This edited collection explores the varied nature of work in Europe: the relationship between paid and unpaid work; the influence of welfare regimes on work; the relationship between fertility and work; workplace cultures and the organisation and experience of work; and attitudes towards gender and work. Each article addresses, in distinctive ways, the implications of the decline of the dominance of the male‐breadwinner model for the division of labour. Consequently, the collection sheds considerable light on the contemporary experience of paid and unpaid work in Europe, and the complexity of the intersections between our working lives and other domains of human experience, especially family life, or what we might call “social reproduction”.

Although only recently published (2007), the collection arose from a seminar held in 2003 in which the authors presented material from three sizeable research endeavours, the ESRC‐funded “Employment and the Family” and “Families, Employment and Work‐Life Integration in Britain and Europe” projects, and the EU funded “Transitions” project. This genealogy gives the collection two strengths. Firstly, it is primarily empirically based and the research findings reported are compelling. Secondly, the collection encourages cross‐national comparisons. Indeed, many of the chapters report cross‐national research findings, while for others, the co‐location of related articles within the collection encourages the reader to compare and contrast. For readers outside of Europe, this is particularly useful. It enables the material to travel much more easily into our own research milieux, as we imagine “in addition” how what the authors present in their various chapters, might apply in say, Australasia or North America.

The book comprises 13 chapters, including an excellent introduction and conclusion by the editors. The shared analytical engagement with the decline of the dominance of the male‐breadwinner model makes this both a useful book in its entirety – and a useful source of significant research‐based articles across a number of topic areas. The 11 substantive chapters explore such diverse topics as fertility decline in Eastern Europe, work‐life balance in France, and case studies of work‐family boundaries in Swedish social service agencies, as well as more thematically driven comparative articles exploring, for example, the impact of social policy on families and work. All chapters are well‐written and very readable. Indeed, as a smorgasbord of research on work, gender and family life, this table is tantalisingly laden.

In the editors' introduction, the context for the collection is thoroughly laid out. This chapter is structured in a way that serves two purposes – a primer in history of changes in gendered division of labour, and the complexity of the current tendencies shaping the work and family experiences of contemporary women and men in Europe. As the editors note, rising rates of participation in paid work by women (and especially mothers), the resulting rise in dual earner households, the fluidity of contemporary intimate (and especially familial) relationships, declining fertility rates, and recognition of a new social issue – “work‐life balance” – have transformed the gendered “male‐breadwinner‐female caregiver” division of labour that characterised the middle decades of the twentieth century. Mass consumption is identified as an economic driver in reshaping the relationship between paid and unpaid work, especially as more and more of what was traditionally unpaid work is commodified for consumption, and care work increasingly shifted from the household to the waged economy.

Given these changes the editors thus ask:

How is the work of caring to be accomplished, given that it can no longer be automatically assumed that it will be undertaken (unpaid) within the family? How may sets of institutions, moulded to the contours of the ‘male breadwinner’ arrangement, be reconstructed in order to accommodate to new realities? How do families adjust to these changing circumstances and what is to be done about the growing conflict between paid employment and the demands of family life? Will social and economic inequalities, between women and men, as well as between different social classes, be ameliorated or intensified by these recent changes? (p. 4).

Usefully, the complexity of these questions is addressed by the editors who distinguish structural (national welfare regimes, labour market policies, and patterns of household stratification) and relational elements, and how these shape work‐life (or, a term used in the chapter, “work‐family”) articulations. The intersections between structural and relational elements are not posited as deterministic, although as the editors note, structural elements shape how individuals experience work through, for example, parameters on participation in the labour market (availability of child care, paid parental leave, and so on). Nevertheless, structural elements are “crucially filtered by varying norms and values at the national, group and individual level” (p. 5).

While the increase in women's participation in paid work is a characteristic shared by all late‐modern societies, variations in welfare regimes (including the structural parameters of local labour markets) shape how “work‐life balance” might be experienced, as do national and local differences in social attitudes and values. The intersections between the normative attitudes and the institutional practices of particular workplaces are usefully explored in several of the chapters, and as several authors note, the relationship between social change, social attitudes and individual behaviour is at best complex. Karin Wall's cross‐national comparison of attitudes towards women and paid work is extraordinary in its careful analysis of the complexity and variation of such attitudes across and within seven European countries. As Wall notes, although the male‐breadwinner ideal is increasingly contested along with the “valorisation of motherhood and childhood” (p. 109), there remains a plurality of attitudes towards women, and the division of labour more generally. The importance of understanding the plurality of experience is echoed in Crompton and Lyonette's analysis of the outsourcing of domestic work by employed women across six European states. Here, class is identified as important. The relationship between class (or employment status) and domestic arrangements show considerable variation, again across and within different countries. In sum, who does what around the house does matter, and the tendency is that women either do most of it, or take responsibility for ensuring “it” gets done.

While the cross‐national focus of most articles is a major strength of the collection, this is not to suggest that the articles, or indeed the book per se, lack the insight that the specificity of a case or national circumstance can offer. Indeed, several of the chapters are very “local” but remain usefully illustrative of the complexity of the shifting contemporary division of labour and experience of work under the conditions of late modernity. For example, in Bäck‐Wiklund and Plantin's chapter presenting a case study of family‐friendly policies in two Swedish social service agencies, the particularities of the Swedish welfare state, the Swedish political economy, and local management practices are linked to broader issues around organisational culture, individualism, and the intersections between traditional gender roles and occupational status. Similarly, das Dores Gurreiro and Pereira's case study of Portuguese service organisations is locally focussed, but points to broader issues around the relationship between public policy and organisational culture, and workers organising themselves through collective agreements. Indeed, despite very different expectations for Portuguese men and women in the doing of domestic work, workplace policies can make a difference, especially if workers are involved in negotiating the specifics of those policies.

Some of the findings reported in the substantive chapters are unsurprising, if not a little depressing. They remind me that even if the division of labour seems to be improving, especially for women, often things are simply changing, or worse still, oppressive continuities elided. This collection is evidence that social change is a “slippery fish” and not necessarily progressive (as we can see in the many countries where women's total working hours have increased due to the decline of the male‐breadwinner ideal). The contestation of the old ideal has produced new patterns and cultures of work that are experienced unevenly, even contradictorily, while at the same time long‐standing gender and class inequalities are, in some instances, persistently reproduced. For these and other reasons, making sense of the complex implications of the decline of the male‐breadwinner model must remain a central item on our research agendas.

One article which I thought offered particular insight was that exploring the notion of “care capital” as mediating the experience of work‐family balance. Anttonen and Sipilä operationalise care capital with measures of time, money and the co‐presence of other adults within family households, and relate care capital to measures of stress and satisfaction with family life. However, I think the concept has broader potential as an analytical category that can draw together the structural and relational elements that shape how paid work and social reproduction are variously experienced across the life‐course. A more structural approach to understanding the distribution of care capital might help us to usefully explore how the fluidity of our intimate and working lives connect, especially as both domains of experience are increasingly structured by contingent, rather than enduring, intimate and workplace relationships.

Although in the introduction to the collection, the editors note the increasingly fluidity of family life, this is hardly addressed subsequently. I wonder if the concept of “care capital” might be very useful for understanding women's experiences of paid work over time, especially as women continue to provide the most care, especially for children, irrespective of their occupational or relational statuses or their co‐residence with other adults. Often, the impact of this care is difficult to measure, especially as care is increasingly bracketed off through claims that all adults are workers now. “Care capital” might thus illuminate differences between “workers” “women workers” and “working mothers” and how these are structured and reproduced by their access to resources outside of the labour market.

“Care capital” might also usefully shed light on the experiences of women (and men) who live as single people, but with complex and changing care obligations within their communities. This growing group of workers is virtually invisible in this collection. Nevertheless, as fertility rates fall, it is likely that more women (and men) will live lives unencumbered by the co‐residence of biological children or the increasingly anachronistic “lifelong partner”. However, there is no reason to assume that these lives will be devoid of responsibilities for care, or that these workers are “undeserving” of the promise of a more egalitarian work‐life balance.

So what can we learn from this collection? Importantly, despite the decline of the male‐breadwinner model, what it means to be a man or woman in late‐modern societies and the normative expectations of contemporary femininities and masculinities entails that work remains gendered: unpaid domestic work is more strongly associated with a good mother and wife, than a good father and husband. The intensification of (paid) work is placing new demands on workers and the types of “intimate” or “familial” relationships workers might form, as are organisational cultures which are “designed” to support work‐life balance – but may not necessarily do so. A theme common across many of the chapters is that attitudinal change at the organisational and individual level is not enough to ensure an egalitarian division of labour. However, change is occurring, and despite it's being “slow, uneven and often imperfect” (p. 232), interventions through national policy initiatives and innovative workplace practices might yet lead us further up the path towards a more progressive experience of both work, and “life”.

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