Women and Employment: Changing Lives and New Challenges

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

Gender in Management

ISSN: 1754-2413

Article publication date: 8 May 2009



Patterson, L. (2009), "Women and Employment: Changing Lives and New Challenges", Gender in Management, Vol. 24 No. 3, pp. 228-230. https://doi.org/10.1108/17542410910950895



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2009, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Reviewing collections requires tenacity. They seem to take more time, concentration and reflection, than a typical research monograph. Collections oblige their reviewer to stand firm against the temptation to dip into chapters of interest, even when contributions might include the wildly unfamiliar and, dare I say it, appear to be less than interesting. While I suspect “dipping in” is how most readers will engage with this book (indeed how I might have engaged with this book if I were a non‐reviewer reader), this excellent collection deserves to be read, and from cover to cover.

This collection presents findings from a diverse range of researchers active in GeNet, the Gender Inequalities Network working on nine projects, in the main funded through the UK's Economic and Social Research Council. Most of the contributions were presented at the conference marking the 25th anniversary of the (groundbreaking) Women and Employment Survey (WES) (carried out by the Office for Population Census and Surveys and the Department of Employment in 1980).

As a consequence, all the contributions focus on the UK situation over the past 25 years, although some offer comparative exemplars and analysis. This national focus makes this collection an essential resource for those working in the UK (and Europe). But, the general empirical excellence of the collection, as well as the theoretical insights generated in some of the chapters, make this an essential collection for anyone interested in gender and work; the social relations that characterise knowledge economies; and the effects of the decline of the breadwinner‐caregiver welfare state and consolidation of individualization on occupational structures and the experience of paid and unpaid work.

The book comprises 15 very different but related chapters and is organised into four parts. The editors' introduction situates the collection against the changes and continuities in employment, and especially women's employment, over the past 25 years. For those less familiar with WES, it also hints at the on‐going importance of this remarkable research (a theme echoed up by many of the contributors). The editors acknowledge that in terms of women and employment “the picture [remains] complex” (p. 11). Yet, they expertly summarise “unanticipated” economic changes over the past 25 years (especially the growth in occupations requiring the “production, management or transfer of knowledge or information” (p. 11)) and the concomitant transformation of the labour market, occupational structures and women's working lives more generally.

Part I focuses on women and employment, and “assessing progress on equality”. The three chapters in Part I combine well, and present a detailed analysis of the position of women in employment by contrasting contemporary and historical data. I found Purcell and Elias's chapter on career couples especially compelling, both methodologically and substantively. This and the other chapters detailing occupational change and occupational mobility and differences in labour market activity by ethnicity, all draw on the themes of the impact of a segmented labour market on women's experience of work, as well as how gendered workplaces sometimes enable, but more often constrain, women's experiences of “career”.

The chapters in Part I exemplify the empirical excellence that characterises the collection more generally, but are also illustrative of why this collection should appeal to a wide and diverse audience of readers. Researchers, students, policy makers, and general interested readers will no doubt find all three chapters fascinating. Progress towards equality is uneven, and perhaps even unnervingly slow. Nevertheless, these chapters show that while some continuities are depressingly persistent, women's working lives have been transformed by the knowledge economy, and women's employment experiences are now in many ways remarkably different. Dex, Ward and Joshi, for example, present a detailed analysis of occupational change, as well as the relationship between time out of the labour market and the “mother penalty”. In short, this very complex paper has a very clear message for readers working in policy areas. A total of 25 years of statutory maternity leave has been important, and although the “mother penalty” persists, its effects have been mitigated through policy intervention.

Part II comprises chapters focusing more specifically on employment and family dynamics over the past 25 years. In my view, the most compelling chapter here is by Martin and Roberts, describing the history of WES and its significance in terms of contemporary understandings of the women and work. I was struck by the account of the methodological innovations WES required (in terms of both the life history method, and the classificatory work completed on women's occupations), as well as the enduring significance of the survey's major finding (that is, that women's labour market attachment is modified, but rarely severed, by motherhood). Martin and Roberts' reflections on the historical conditions under which such a substantial piece of research was completed are also fascinating. The limited technology and labour intensive research techniques of the time compel reflection on the dramatic impact of relatively recent, but taken‐for‐granted, technologies on research practice.

In Part III, the focus shifts again to the more contemporary concern of “work‐life balance” (or “work‐life conflict” as described by the authors of one of the chapters here). In this part, McCrae's chapter is an excellent exemplar of contributors using the WES findings to situate their current research interests. McCrae explicitly points to the enduring validity of the WES identification of the mother penalty for “women returners”, and especially the enduring inequality experienced by women who work part‐time.

Parts II and III of the collection are very complementary. While Part II focuses on the complexity of employment and family dynamics, Part III shifts to empirical investigations as well as philosophical considerations in terms of “work‐life balance”. Crompton and Lyonette's finding that the cost of motherhood is greater for low‐ and mid‐skilled women (who are more likely to work fewer hours in more precarious jobs) resonates with the findings of the qualitative investigation reported by Fagan et al. into work‐life balance amongst dual career couples. These chapters show the importance of analysing gender and class effects, as well as the contribution that qualitative and quantitative methods offer for enhancing our understanding of the complexity of women's working and family lives. Continuing inequalities in the household division of labour are well illustrated in Harkness's chapter, as are changes in the proportional earnings of women to household income in partnered households. Finally, Lewis's chapter tracing the development of work‐family policies in the UK (although drawing on illustrative cross‐national comparisons) presents a strong case for the importance of policy interventions to achieve work‐life balance.

Just as Dex et al. noted the importance of statutory maternity leave in their chapter in Part I, Lewis shows that statutory leave entitlements are an important mechanism for achieving equality for women. She notes that in countries where statutory leave provisions enhance work‐life balance, firms do little. In countries where governments do little in terms of such leave, firms do not fill the gap (p. 277). Thus, political leadership and public policy remain crucial for changing the culture of work and workplaces.

The importance of the government action in terms of women and employment is a theme that structures Part IV of the collection. Here, the ongoing challenges of income inequality, labour market segmentation (and especially the experience of migrant workers), and the “problem” of the provision of care when paid work becomes the citizenship norm, are all addressed. These chapters are stimulating, and I especially like the way the editors have shaped the temporal order of the collection to end with a future‐focus. What is particularly powerful is that these later chapters are grounded by the historical and contemporary issues that Parts I through III so excellently canvassed. Rubery's ideas for the “modernisation of labour market institutions” especially captured my attention. Her discussion on the problem of income inequality, and the (recent) cultural acceptance of widening pay differentials and huge salaries for a few, was particularly thought‐provoking.

In sum, then, this is an excellent collection that should, as I noted earlier, be read cover to cover. However, I do have one relatively minor criticism of the book – the cover itself, or more particularly, the cover design. When I received this book for review, I was struck by how dreary it looked and wondered whether I would ever summon the interest to open it. The dullness of the cover belies the brilliance of the work within (indeed illustrating the old adage). And while this may seem a trivial criticism, I do think for books like this to attract the wide range of specialist and interested readers they deserve requires attention to aesthetics. Hopefully, most readers are not as churlish about these things as I am, and will become engrossed by the enduring significance of WES for understanding “women and employment”, and absorbed in the variety and depth of research that records 25 years of “changing lives” as well as identifying many “new challenges”.

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