Why don’t female graduates work full-time?

On my Facebook page, there has been a bit of debate about my article in this morning’s Age. My basic point was that women with bachelor degrees are less likely to work full-time than men, and that this inevitably has consequences for what proportion of senior jobs go to women. These jobs are typically more than full-time, and usually go to people with a lot of experience.

Obviously childcare is a big part of the story. As the figure below shows (all data from the 2011 census), the more kids women have the less likely they are to work full-time during the years when children need care.

But the figure also shows that childless women are less likely than men to work full-time. And it shows that while full-time labour force participation increases as children grow up, women in their fifties lose interest in work regardless of how many kids they have had in the past.

Rates of full-time work, bachelor degree holders 2011



Various theories were offered on Facebook. One was the caring for a disabled person could affect the numbers. There is a census question on this, and it does – for childless women it knocks 5-7 percentage points off FT work rates if they have these caring responsibilities. But only 8% of them do.

Another was that marital status matters. This was complex – a registered marriage does reduce FT work rates in all age groups, but not a de facto marriage except aged 30-44 (probably kids). Another census question asks about household arrangements, so I looked only at lone person households to eliminate co-habitation/caring factors as much as possible. And indeed this greatly reduces the differences from age early 30s onwards, as seen below (though this is partly because lone men have much worse employment outcomes than co-habitating men from their 40s).

Overall it looks like when graduate women have caring obligations or have opportunities not to work full-time, significant numbers work part-time or leave the labour force. But when they don’t need to support anyone or have anyone to support them, their workforce participation closely resembles men in the same situation.

Lone person households, bachelor degree holders working full-time

Czech version here, translated by Alex Novak.

  1. It would be interesting to break down the figures for men into childless / one or more children too.

  2. It would be interesting. The census does not directly ask men how many kids they have. But it can be used to see whether there are children in their household. Unfortunately, however, I can’t see how to get at this data using the ABS software I have.

  3. Not sure how to test for this, but I would hypothesize that more women ‘marry up’ in terms of age and consequently career progression (on average).

    This may naturally lead to couples choosing the male partner to focus more on the job and income than the female partner as the older partner is likely already more progressed in the career.

    Of course, this would not always be the case but it would be interesting to see if there was a correlation between average marital age (or de facto age) and working hours.

  4. Marianne Bertrand, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence F. Katz found that male and female MBAs had nearly identical earnings at the outset of their careers, but their earnings soon diverged because of:
    1. differences in training prior to MBA graduation,
    2. differences in career interruptions, and
    3. differences in weekly hours, including more work in part-time positions and self-employment

    MBA mothers choose jobs that are family friendly, and avoid jobs with long hours and greater career advancement possibilities.

    An interesting finding was for when hubby earned less: the adverse impact of children on employment and earnings was not found for female MBAs with husbands who earnt less than them. MBA mothers with very high earning husbands also worked less.

  5. Personally, I’m female and don’t earn as much as my male partner — despite having more work experience, similar education (the same degrees with similar grades, plus an extra one) and being older — and this will influence my decision about working. I work full-time, but if there’s ever a choice about one of us working part-time for whatever reason, it makes sense that I should because I earn less.

    Why do I earn less? I don’t know exactly, but I’m not as confident as he is and not as good at negotiating for higher pay. I don’t have as a strong a sense of my own self-worth. When we were looking for jobs, I didn’t hold out for higher pay like he did – he actually tolerated unemployment for months and turned down job offers if he thought the pay wasn’t high enough, whereas I took the first reasonable job I could get despite its low pay because I was afraid there’d be nothing else for me. The difference between the payoff from his strategy and mine was significant and ongoing.

    I don’t know if this is common to other women, but I didn’t see it mentioned in the article, so I thought I’d add it as a possible reason.

  6. The divergence in earnings as age increases does seem like it would be part of the explanation, that is, the partner who earns less is more likely to undertake household activities.

  7. What about women in their fifties who, far from ‘losing interest’ in work, have found themselves pretty much the sole carers of an elderly parent or parents?

    I am interested in this group, because it represents an increasing number of the women I know and work with, who are taking more and more carer’s leave or switching to part-time work so they can help elderly parents.

  8. Philippa – I haven’t looked at the figures for all women, but for childless female bachelor-degree holders in their 50s a quarter are provided unpaid assistance to someone with a disability. However, even among those who are not only 56% work FT aged 50-54. and 44% aged 55-59.

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