Working paper

Nappies, books and wrinkles: how children, qualifications and age affect female underemployment in Australia

Women economic conditions Women and employment Underemployment Labour force participation Australia

This paper examines the factors contributing to female underemployment across Australia. ‘Underemployed’ in this document refers to females in part-time employment, who, if given the choice, would take on more hours of paid employment relative to their current hours. The notion of underemployment is particularly relevant to policy makers at the moment given the increasing rates of part-time employment in the country, and the preponderance of females in this type of work contract. The rise of part-time employment can be both beneficial for a willing employee, but high rates of underemployment suggest that a sizeable minority of females working limited hours would prefer to work full-time instead, and that this is an inefficiency to the labour market, one not picked up by unemployment figures.

This paper also raises the question of the relevance of providing commentary on ‘female employees’, as there is a significant amount of heterogeneity between different female labour force participants. For example, part-time work may be ideal for females who have children at home but wish to balance their homemaking responsibilities with professional duties but not necessarily match the expectations of young and/or educated females who possess labour market characteristics similar to their male counterparts. In this situation, underemployment will be more prevalent among the latter than the former and references to the ‘average female labour force participant’ may not actually paint as accurate a picture of the situation faced by females with varying labour market characteristics.

Based on our research, we find that age, qualifications and the presence of children at home are leading factors in determining whether females find themselves underemployed or not. It appears that young females who are tertiary educated and do not have children at home have a higher likelihood of being underemployed than those who are older with no tertiary education and children at home. On the other hand, the rate of underemployment for younger females in part-time employment fall when they have young children, as they are more likely to be satisfied with working restricted hours given the need of young children to have additional supervision in the home.

In sum, this study highlights the complexity of the heterogenous female workforce and the need for a multi-dimensional approach. Policy prescriptions to ease the underemployment conundrum amongst females in part-time employment must tackle a multitude of impeding factors that bring together policymakers encompassing the education, childcare and labour market sectors (among others).

Publication Details
Life Course Centre Working Paper No. 2019–24