More working mums, a shrinking pay gap and higher wealth - families from 1980 to now
The Sector > Workforce > More working mums, a shrinking pay gap and higher wealth – families from 1980 to now

More working mums, a shrinking pay gap and higher wealth – families from 1980 to now

by Freya Lucas

August 17, 2020

Australia has more working mothers, a marginally narrowing gender pay gap, and increased household wealth, new research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) has found


The research will be of interest to those in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector who look to track such trends across time, and use them as part of an analysis of future needs for children and families, as well as providing a perspective about how the sector has changed and evolved over the past 40 years. 


Latest findings from the Families Then and Now series, which maps key changes in Australian households from 1980 to 2019, reveal that one of the most significant employment shifts since the 1980s has been the growing number of mothers in the workforce, with figures more than doubling since 1984.


For partnered mothers whose youngest child was under five, the employment rate increased from 30 per cent in 1984 to 63 per cent in 2019, while for single mothers with a youngest child the same age, the rate jumped from 19 per cent to 39 per cent. 


A range of factors contributed to these figures, AIFS Director Anne Hollonds said, including better access to part-time jobs and childcare, and also changes in social attitudes about working mothers, which have supported more mothers to enter and stay in the workforce. 


“Female participation in the workforce used to have an ‘M-shaped’ distribution, meaning labour force participation was quite high when women were in their teens and early twenties, then dropped off between 24 and 35 when they were having children, and jumped back up again after 35 when the kids were a bit older,” Ms Hollonds said. 

“Now, that M-shape has flattened significantly. We don’t have that same dip in the number of women in the workforce around childbearing age.” 

While there are more women working now than there were 40 years ago, they are still being paid significantly less than their male counterparts.


“In 1981, the gender pay gap was 23 per cent, compared to 17 per cent at the end of 2019. There’s been some progress towards equal pay for women, but not much,” Ms Hollonds explained. 


While the number of families with both parents working has increased since the 1980s, the allocation of time spent in paid and unpaid work still remains heavily influenced by gender – with fathers usually in full-time employment, and mothers often working part-time, or not at all. 


The percentage of fathers who filled the role of “stay at home” parent increased between 1981 and 2001, moving from 1.9 per cent to 4.5 per cent, however this figure has stagnated since the early 2000’s, with the latest figure, from 2016, showing only 4.6 per cent of stay at home parents are male. 


This, Ms Hollands said, “suggests that while the number of mothers in the workforce has grown substantially in the last 40 years, household dynamics haven’t changed nearly as much. Mums are still much more likely to be the primary caregivers for children.” 

A significant increase to average household income, as well as surging property prices and increases in superannuation has meant that the average household net worth in Australia has increased considerably since the 1980s – passing one million dollars in the 2017/18 financial year. 

As with income, however, there is a big discrepancy between men and women when it comes to superannuation savings.


“In 1974, more than twice as many men, compared to women, had some form of superannuation savings. Latest data from 2018 shows that a significant gender gap remains, with men aged 55-59 having an average balance of almost $318,000, compared to $207,000 for women the same age,” Ms Hollands said. 


The latest analysis has been  released against the backdrop of COVID-19, which has seen a surge in unemployment, underemployment and home-based work


While many men were taking advantage of the flexible working arrangements available during the pandemic, the way household duties were being shared “hadn’t yet changed much” Ms Hollands noted, saying that as the researchers look to the next era, 2020 and beyond “it will be interesting to see whether COVID-19 has a lasting effect on how parents go about their work, and how significantly – if at all – those changes might begin to impact some of these long-running trends around income and superannuation.” 


The full reports, Income and wealth and How we worked are available on the AIFS website

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