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1  Introduction

The failure of highly educated women to stay in the labor market represents a wasted societal investment. …Policy measures can address the reasons some women do drop out by making it more possible for professionals,as well as other workers, to combine work and family. In addition, the double standard in parenting needs to be attacked so that, eventually, men are just as likely as women to take care of children at the same level of intensity and women’s and men’s labor force participation patterns will look even more similar than they do today (Hartmann 2004).

This quote from Hartmann captures two important judgments that are sometimes made in relation to men’s and women’s patterns of paid and unpaid work. First, for a variety of reasons, including maximising investments in education and striving for gender equality in both society and the home, many commentators consider increasing women’s employment rates to be an important goal.[1] [2] Second, some analysts suggest that unless men increase their share of unpaid work, gender equality in both the home and the workplace will not be possible. Fulfilling these two goals would require a shift in the distribution of paid and unpaid work between women and men.

Hartmann provides some reasons as to why a society might desire an increase in women's labour force participation, but there could be many other possible goals. In New Zealand, for instance, are we seeking to increase total paid labour supply (the combined hours worked by men and women), are we trying to replace unpaid work with (possibly more productive) paid work, are we aiming to achieve gender equity in both paid and unpaid work or, in fact, is the aim to achieve a mixture of goals?

Keeping in mind this overall question of the reasons for increasing participation rates, I begin the paper by outlining various longer-term changes in employment for men and women as individuals, in households and as couples in families. These are well known but are worth repeating to set the scene for the subsequent analysis. Monitoring changes in individual, household and family employment patterns is important if we are to fully understand employment choices, given that a significant number of working-aged individuals live in households with other working-aged individuals and will, therefore, often be making joint decisions about paid and unpaid work.

Drawing on a variety of data sources, including information on employment preferences, this section includes international comparisons of families’ patterns of paid work. The data presented here complement the data on the employment of individuals presented by Johnston (2005).

The paper then moves onto a discussion of unpaid work. Due to there having been only one time use survey carried out in New Zealand, inevitably this section focuses on cross-sectional rather than time series data. It includes exploring some future options for changing the mix of paid and unpaid work, including the gender division of such work, in New Zealand. Based on the discussion of both paid and unpaid work, the paper concludes by exploring whether there is the potential to develop a high-productivity society in New Zealand, with an optimal balance between paid work and family life, as well as a high level of equality between men and women in both the home and the workplace.

In much of this discussion I focus on the 25-34 age group, since this is of particular interest.[3] In early 2005, the government stated that, while New Zealand’s overall labour force participation rates are high, the rate for some groups of New Zealand women, particularly those aged 25-34, are below the OECD average (Clark 2005). While recognising the importance of sole parenthood in the analysis of changes in work, this paper primarily focuses on couples with young children. For couples, the period when children have yet to reach school age is a time where, traditionally, the differences in patterns of paid and unpaid work between women and men have been the most extreme.

In summary, the paper explores five main questions, primarily in the context of couples with young children. These are:

  • How much total paid and unpaid work is carried out in New Zealand?
  • How is this work shared between women and men?
  • How does this compare with other countries?
  • How might the mix of unpaid and paid work change in New Zealand in the future?
  • Should gender equality be a key consideration in developing labour participation policies?

In considering the last point, there is a large and highly contested literature on what equality between the sexes might look like and what barriers, either culturally constructed or biologically based, there might be to change. While resolving these debates is very important, this paper considers equality at the basic level of male/female ratios of hours of paid and unpaid work.

In the discussions of paid and unpaid work, averages are primarily used. It is recognised that averages disguise much within-group heterogeneity and that the use of averages runs the risk of stereotyping the actual work performed by individual women and men. There is now much diversity within groups of individuals and households. The reader needs to keep in mind this heterogeneity when considering the data that are presented.

Finally, there is often an implicit assumption in the literature about households and the gender division of paid and unpaid work, that providing financially is not considered an investment in children in the same way unpaid work is (Christiansen and Palkovitz 2001). For example, attending a music lesson with your child is often considered a parental investment, whereas paying for the lesson is frequently not. The fact that both paid and unpaid work can be forms of parental investment needs to be taken into account when considering the balance of paid and unpaid work within families.


  • [1]As an example, the New Zealand Women’s Action Plan (Ministry of Women’s Affairs 2004: 10) has as two of its goals to “improve women’s participation in employment, earnings, and quality of employment” and to “increase women’s participation in leadership and decision-making in the economic sector”.
  • [2]Investments in education may, in fact, have payoffs in other markets as well, such as the marriage market, or in the quality of non market work at home or in the community.
  • [3]There are some important underlying demographic and educational changes taking place in the 25-34 age group that potentially affect discussions about changes in paid and unpaid work. These are set out in Appendix 1.
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