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HREOC Website: Sex Discrimination - Striking the Balance

It's About Time

A snapshot of some of the facts informing this project

Workforce participation

  • Women make up 45 per cent of the Australian workforce.1 International comparisons reveal a low level of workforce involvement among Australian mothers. Of Australian women with two or more children, only 43 per cent are in the workforce, compared with 82 per cent in Sweden and 62 per cent in the UK.2
  • In almost two thirds of couple families with dependent children3 both parents are employed.4 Fifty-nine per cent of all mothers with dependent children are employed compared to 73 per cent of all fathers.5
  • Of the 698 800 couple families with dependent children where only one parent was employed, the employed parent was the father in 89 per cent of cases.
  • Around half (52 per cent) of sole parents with dependent children are employed and half of these are employed full-time. As with couple families, lone parents with older children were more likely to be employed than those with younger children – 76 per cent are employed in families where the youngest dependent child is a full-time student aged 15–24 years compared to 28 per cent where the youngest child is aged 0–2 years.

Part-time work

  • Part-time work is the way that many families attempt to balance their paid work and family responsibilities.  Forty-five per cent of all employed women work part-time compared to 15 per cent of men.6
  • Casual employees are heavily concentrated among part-time workers. In August 2005, 70 per cent of employees  without paid leave entitlements worked part-time. The largest group of casual employees were women who worked part-time, making up almost half (47 per cent) of this employment type.7

Work and family balance

  • While the work/family balance debate has been centred on women, more men are now expressing the desire to seek a better balance between paid work and family commitments. A study of 1 000 Australian fathers showed that 68 per cent felt they did not spend enough time with their children and 53 per cent felt that their job and family lives interfered with each other.8
  • Most women combine family responsibilities with paid work. Only four per cent of young Australian women aspire to be full-time at home with family in mid-life.9
  • Many men want to be more involved in their children’s lives. Findings from the HILDA survey data ‘suggest that fathers who are employed miss out on family activities they would like to be involved in and . . . working causes them to miss out on the rewarding aspects of being a parent’.10

Families Time Use

Paid Work

  • Longer working hours, work intensification and the growth in part time and casual work over the last few decades all affect men’s and women’s experiences of paid work and family. Average hours worked by full time workers in 2005-2006 was 44.1 hours per week – 45.4 hours for men and 41.4 hours for women.11 It is mostly men, often fathers, who work long hours in the paid workforce. In 2004, 34.2 per cent of men worked 45 hours or more per week. By comparison, only 12.5 per cent of women were in paid work more than 45 hours per week. Fathers of young children are likely to be working a greater number of hours than other men. The average usual working hours of employed partnered fathers with an infant is 46 hours per week.12
  • Almost three million Australian employees (37 per cent) work overtime in their main job on a regular basis, with one third of this overtime unpaid.13 Men are more likely to work overtime than women (44 per cent and 29 per cent respectively).

Unpaid Work

  • Family responsibilities are not divided equally among men and women: women do 90 per cent of childcare tasks and 70 per cent of all family work while only 15 per cent of fathers are highly participative in terms of time on family work.14
  • In couples where men and women both work full time women undertake more than twice the amount of indoor housework as men.15
  • Time use studies show that while fathers spend a high proportion of their time with children in play activities, the physical care of children remains largely the responsibility of women. Time-diary evidence shows that fathers give up less of their leisure time than mothers do, and ‘help out’ rather than taking full responsibility for the care of children.16

Family friendly working arrangements

  • Half of all employees have fixed start and finish times that cannot be negotiated with their employer. A further 16 per cent have set start and finish times that they can negotiate with their employer. More than one-fifth of employees (22 per cent) have no set start and finish times and are able to choose their times on a day-to-day basis.17 Slightly more men than women are able to access flexible start and finish times on a day-to-day basis (25 per cent compared to 19 per cent) in both full and part time employment.
  • Many employees also have access to other flexible work practices - 41 per cent are able to work extra hours in order to take time off, 70 per cent can choose when holidays are taken, 20 per cent of employees are entitled to a Rostered Day Off (RDO).18
  • Twenty-seven per cent of Australian employees are casual employees with no paid leave entitlements. Of these employees, 54 per cent were women.

Maternity and Parental Leave

  • Among OECD countries, only the US and Australia have not legislated for minimum paid maternity leave across the workforce.
  • The International Labour Organization’s Maternity Protection Convention (2000) No. 183 states that countries should provide at least 14 weeks of paid maternity leave. A recent study of 166 ILO member countries found that Australia is one of only five countries which does not provide paid maternity leave. (Along with Lesotho, Swaziland, Papua New Guinea and the United States).19 Existing Australian legislation only provides for 12 months unpaid parental leave.20
  • Currently some mothers in Australia have access to paid maternity leave, but it is very unevenly available across the workforce. A new survey released by the ABS has found that paid maternity leave is used by around one-third (34 per cent) of employed mothers-to-be and is mostly taken by women working in the public sector, in large workplaces with more than 500 employees and earning high salaries. 21
  • Paid parental/paternity leave is even less widely available. Only 25 per cent of partners used paid paternity or parental leave although other forms of paid leave are used by around 70 per cent of partners. The average duration of leave among fathers is around 14 days.  

Take up of family friendly work provisions by men

  • In one survey of 1 000 fathers, more than half believed that the major barrier to being the kind of father they wanted to be was the commitment to paid work, in particular, barriers associated with paid work such as expectations of working long hours and inflexibility.22
  • In Australia there is little information on the take-up of family friendly provisions, but we know, for example, that in 2000, of the 1 900 400 employees who had children under the age of 12 years, only 20 500 took parental or carers’ leave and, of these, 6 800 were men.23 While men made up nearly 58 per cent of employees with children under 12, they were just over 33 per cent of those who took parental or carers’ leave.24
  • While men appear less likely to take periods of unpaid leave, it has been suggested that they would be willing to use periods of paid paternal leave. This has been attributed to an unwillingness or inability to forego income, particularly where men’s income is generally higher than women’s.25

Pay equity

  • As long as women continue to earn on average less than men, the pressure on women to give up paid employment in exchange for unpaid caring obligations will continue. This gender inequity in pay rates also limits the life choices of men to undertake non-traditional roles because families cannot afford to lose the larger part of a double income.26
  • To create real choice for men and women, a greater effort is required to progress pay equity. Women in Australia currently earn 83.6 percent of the male dollar for full time ordinary time earnings.27 If both full and part time work is included, women only earn 65.5 per cent of what men earn.
  • It has been estimated that up to half of women would need to change their occupation in order for women’s occupational distribution to match that of men.28
  • Recent research carried out for HREOC has found that there are five key industries for women’s employment in Australia, which exhibit similar characteristics: a relatively high proportion of women employees, a high level of award only coverage, high levels of part-time work and low levels of hourly earnings. The most notable of these are the ‘accommodation, cafes and restaurants’ and ‘health and community services’ industries.29

Child care

  • National statistics on child care recently released by the ABS show that 46 per cent of Australian children aged 0-12 years attend child care with 21 per cent using formal child care and 33 per cent using informal care, either alone or in combination.30
  • In the last decade in particular, the shift from informal to formal care has been marked. While the proportion of all children receiving some type of child care has not changed significantly, the number of children in formal care has grown. The number of 0-11 year olds in formal child care (including in combination with informal child care) has increased from 14 per cent (446,800) in 1996 to 23 per cent (704,400) in 2005.31
  • Recent statistics from the ABS suggest that as many as 143 000 Australians (including 133 000 women) want to participate in the paid workforce but are not able to do so because they were engaged in caring for children or home duties.32  Clearly this is not only due to child care availability, but the significance of availability cannot be discounted.
  • ABS statistics demonstrate a significant level of unmet need in relation to all forms of formal child care. The recently released survey found that parents required additional formal care for almost 190 000 children nationally.33 The survey found that one-third of these parents said they did not use additional care because services were booked out or no places were available, ten per cent said that no services existed or they did not know of any in the area and 16 per cent cited the prohibitive cost of care.34
  • The majority of parents were seeking additional care for work reasons (54 per cent), personal reasons (31 per cent – although less than 10 per cent were to give parents a break/time alone) and reasons related to the child’s development or needs (12 per cent).35
  • The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reports that while many parents report no difficulties in accessing child care a significant number have experienced difficulties including:
    • finding care for a sick child (36 per cent);
    • the cost of child care (26 per cent);
    • finding good quality care (21 per cent), care at their choice of centre (23 per cent) or care in the right location (19 per cent);
    • getting the number of hours required (22 per cent);
    • juggling multiple child care arrangements (19 per cent);
    • finding care during school holidays (18 per cent); and
    • finding care for a child with “special” needs (11 per cent).36
  • Child care is becoming less affordable. The Taskforce on Care Costs Child Care Affordability Index shows that between June 1990 and June 2006 the child care costs index has increased 123 per cent while average household disposable income have increased in the same period by 62 per cent.37

People with Disability and Older People Requiring Care

  • Twenty per cent of Australians (almost 4 million people) have a reported disability.38 Of these, the vast majority (86 per cent) report that they have specific limitation or restriction in the core activities of self care, mobility or communication, or are restricted in schooling or employment.
  • More than one in eight Australians (2.6 million people) provides informal care to a family member or friend who needs assistance due to disability, chronic illness or old age.39 It is estimated that these informal carers provided approximately 1.2 billion hours of care in 2005 at an estimated replacement value of $30.5 billion. Almost half a million of these people are primary carers.
  • Three-quarters of carers are of workforce age. Carers are more likely to be unemployed or not participating in paid work than those who are not carers.40 Fifty-six per cent of all carers are employed on a full- or part-time basis or are looking for work, compared to 68 per cent of non-carers. Primary carers have a significantly lower labour force participation rate at only 39 per cent.41
  • It is notable that the rate of full-time work among primary carers in less than half of the general population at only 19 per cent with non primary carers (37 per cent) also lower than the Australian average of 42 per cent. There is evidence that some carers would return to the workforce but for their caring obligations, with around a third (36 per cent) of primary carers indicating a desire to return to work, particularly part-time.42
  • There are around 51 600 Indigenous carers in Australia, accounting for around two per cent of carers in Australia and 12 per cent of Indigenous Australians.43 Work carried out by Carers Victoria indicates that very few Indigenous people identify as carers, however many have significant care responsibilities. Most are women and they are all ages. Most care for more than one person, often for three or four generations of family members with care needs.44
  • Demand for care for older Australians, particularly those with disability, has been growing over the past decade and will grow significantly in line with Australia’s ageing population.  By 2021 it is projected there will be four million people aged 65 years and over45 but it is the growth of the population aged 85 years and over that will most affect demand for formal and informal care. Between 1997 and 2051 the proportion of people in this age group is projected to almost double as a proportion of the population aged 65 years and over (from 9.6 per cent to 18.8 per cent).46


  • As retirees in the future come to depend increasingly on retirement benefits received as a result of work-related contributions over a long period, the disparity between men’s and women’s outcomes in old age is expected to worsen. The widening gap in retirement incomes is the result of the gap in women’s contributions to superannuation during their years spent caring for family,47 because they live longer than men on the retirement savings that they do have and because of the gender pay gap during women’s working lives.
  • Despite compulsory superannuation and increasing awareness of the need for retirement savings, many Australians have very low levels of savings. A recent paper by researchers at Canberra University’s National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling highlighted that while a single person requires a retirement income of around $35 000 per year for a comfortable retirement, male baby boomers (aged 45-59) currently only have an average of $87 100 in savings. For women of the same age, savings are considerably less at an average of $35 000, although 30 % of women of this age have no superannuation at all, half have $8 000 or less and 70 % have $25 000 or less.48
  • The absence of financial independence in retirement or old age means poverty for many women.

[1] ABS Labour Force Australia Cat. No. 6202.0 December 2006, p 6.

[2] Christina Lee, ‘Australian women facing the future: Is the Intergenerational Report gender-neutral?’ An Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia sponsored workshop held in Brisbane 1-2 July 2004, Policy e-paper series (

[3] Children aged less than 15 years or full-time dependent students aged 15–24 years.

[4] ABS Family Characteristics Cat. No. 4442.0 June 2003, p 5.

[5] ABS Family Characteristics Cat. No. 4442.0 June 2003, p 25.

[6] ABS Labour Force Australia Cat. No. 6202.0 December 2006, p 6.

[7] ABS Australian Labour Market Statistics June 2005 Cat. No. 6105.0, p 23.

[8] Graeme Russell et. al. Fitting Fathers into Families Department of Family and Community Services Canberra 1999, pp 36-40.

[9] Christina Lee, ‘Australian women facing the future: Is the Intergenerational Report gender-neutral?’ An Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia sponsored workshop held in Brisbane 1-2 July 2004, Policy e-paper series (

[10] Iain Campbell and Sara Charlesworth, Background Report: Key Work and Family Trends in Australia, Report prepared for the ACTU’s Test Case, Centre for Applied Social Research RMIT University, April, 2004, 32.

[11] ABS Year Book Australia 2007 Cat No 1301.0 p 159.

[12] Data from the first wave (2004) of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (data provided to HREOC by the Australian Institute of Family Studies).

[13] ABS Year Book Australia 2005 Cat No 1301.0 Feature Article Working Arrangements

[14] These conclusions are reached in an overview of various studies into the division of family responsibilities by Lyndy Bowman and Graeme Russell Work and Family: Current thinking, research and practice, Macquarie Research Limited Sydney 2000, 16.

[15] HILDA data Wave 1 analysis conducted by Janeen Baxter, Belinda Hewitt and Mark Western “Post Familial Families and the Domestic Division of Labor” (2005) 36 Journal of Comparative Family Studies 4 Table 2, p 27.

[16] Lyn Craig, ‘Do Australians share parenting? Time-diary evidence on fathers’ and mothers’ time with children’ Paper presented to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, 8th Annual Conference, Melbourne 12-14 February, 2003.

[17] ABS Year Book Australia 2005 Cat No 1301.0 Feature Article Working Arrangements

[18] ABS Year Book Australia 2005 Cat No 1301.0 Feature Article Working Arrangements

[19] Ida Oun and Gloria Pardo Trujillo Maternity At Work: A review of national legislation Findings from the ILOS’s conditions of work and employment database ILO 2005

[20] The Workplace Relations Act 1996, entitles pregnant women who provide the required documentation and who have been employed by their employer for at least 12 months, or who are an ‘eligible casual employee’, the right to take a period of unpaid maternity leave of up to 52 weeks. This amount is reduced by the amount of ‘related authorised leave’ taken by her (or her partner) continuously with a period of maternity leave (for example if she takes 'special maternity leave' because of a pregnancy related illness. The maternity leave guarantee provides a number of protections to women who are eligible for ordinary maternity leave, and/or who take a period of maternity-related leave. In particular, the rights to transfer to a safe job during pregnancy or following leave and a right to return to work following leave.

[21] ABS Pregnancy and Employment Transitions, Australia Cat No 4913.0 November 2005

[22] Lyndy Bowman & Graeme Russell Work and Family: Current thinking, research and practice, Macquarie Research Ltd, Sydney, 2000.

[23] Ibid., 29.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Department of Workplace Relations and Small Business, Work and Family Unit, ‘Working fathers and working mothers - Do their needs differ?’ Work and Family Insert No. 17, August 1998, and John Buchanan and Louise Thornthwaite Paid work and parenting: Charting a new course for Australian families Chifley Research Foundation, University of Sydney, Sydney 2001, 24.

[26] YWCA Australia, Submission 93.

[27] Based on full time ordinary time earnings in November 2006: ABS Average Weekly Earnings, Australia Cat No 6302.0 November 2006.

[28] Yew Liang Lew and Paul W Miller. ‘Occupational Segregation on the Basis of Gender: The Role of Entry-Level Jobs’ Australian Journal of Labour Economics 7(3) 2004 p355-374 at p 355.

[29] These industries are accommodation, cafes and restaurants (58.3 per cent women), cultural and recreational services (50.5 per cent women), health and community services (78.6 per cent women), personal and other services (47.0 per cent women) and retail trade (51.4 per cent women): WiSER Women in Social and Economic Research Unit Curtin University of Technology Women’s pay and conditions in an era of changing working regulations Progress Report Part One: Women’s Employment Status Key Indicators Perth July 2006, p13.

[30] ABS Child Care Australia June 2005 Cat No 4402.0 May 2006, p 43.

[31] ABS Child Care Australia June 2005 Cat No 4402.0 May 2006, p 43.

[32] In September 2005 there were 325 000 Australians who wanted to work but were neither actively looking for work nor available to start work within four weeks. Of these, 69 per cent were women, and 44 per cent reported their main activity as “home duties or caring for children”: ABS Persons Not in the Labour Force, Australia September 2005 Cat No 6220.0 March 2006, pp 19-20.

[33] 188 400 in June 2005, which represents 5.6 per cent of all children in the survey: ABS Child Care Australia June 2005 Cat No 4402.0 May 2006, p 8 and p 16. It should also be noted that this figure represents a need for additional care over a four week period which in almost a third of cases was as little as one day over the four week period: ABS Child Care Australia June 2005 Cat No 4402.0 May 2006, p 31.

[34] ABS Child Care Australia June 2005 Cat No 4402.0 May 2006, p 8.

[35] ibid, p 32.

[36] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Australia’s Welfare 2005 AIHW Canberra 2006, p 94.

[37] Taskforce on Care Costs Child Care Affordability Index “frequently Asked Questions” February 2007, p 3 

[38] ABS Disability, Ageing and Carers Australia 2003 Cat No 4430.0 September 2004, p 3.

[39] Access Economics The Economic Value of Informal Care Report for Carers Australia August 2005, p i.

[40] ABS Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia 2003 Cat No 4430.0 September 2004, p 49 and p 51.

[41] Access Economics The Economic Value of Informal Care Report for Carers Australia August 2005, p 10. See also Carers Australia, Submission 60, p 4 and Anna Chapman, Submission 83, p 9. See also the Striking the Balance discussion paper (Chapter 4).

[42] Access Economics The Economic Value of Informal Care Report for Carers Australia August 2005 p 11 and p 12. See also the Taskforce on Care Costs (ToCC) Where to Now 2006 Final Report 18 October 2006.

[43] Carers NSW Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Carers Carer Information and Statistics accessed through

[44] Roseanne Hepburn  Be With Us, Feel With Us, Act With Us: Counselling and support for Indigenous carers Carers Victoria February 2005, p 7.

[45] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Disability and ageing: Australian population patterns and implications AIHW Canberra 2000, p xvii.

[46] ibid, p xviii.

[47] Ross Clare“Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Man: Gender differences in retirement savings” paper presented at the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia National Conference and Super Expo Adelaide 10-12 November 2004, p 4.

[48] Simon Kelly “Entering Retirement: the Financial Aspects” in Peter Kriesler, Michael Johnson and John Lodewijks (eds) Essays in Heterodox Economics Refereed papers Fifth Australian Society of Heterodox Economists conference 11-12 December 2006 University of NSW, p 295.

9 March, 2007