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Trends in differentials in the workforce participation of mothers with young children in Australia 2002–2008


This paper analyses changes in the employment rates and hours worked of mothers with pre-school age children in Australia between 2002 and 2008, using data from Waves 2 to 8 of the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey, a large-scale longitudinal survey of the household population. The employment rate of mothers with young children rose considerably over the period considered. However, the hours per employed mother changed relatively little on average. There are significant differentials in the mother’s employment rate by the number and ages of children, and by mother’s education, marital status and birthplace. Hours worked per employed mother vary with the mother’s age, education, marital status and birthplace, by the youngest child’s age, and the number of children under five. The paper pays particular attention to the change in these differentials over time. It finds the change over time for the mother’s employment rate varies significantly by the number of children, while for the hours worked it varies by mother’s education and marital dissolution, and the age of the youngest child. The implications of these patterns are discussed.

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Fig. 1
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  1. 1.

    The Child Care Rebate is calculated as a percentage of the ‘gap’ between child care costs and the pre-existing, progressively-levied Child Care Benefit. The initially-announced rate was 30 % of the gap up to an annual maximum amount of A$4,000 per child, with effect for expenses incurred over the 2004–2005 financial year (Daniels 2009). In 2008 the rate of childcare rebate increased to 50 % and the annual maximum amount per child to A$7,750. The rebate is conditional on a specified number of hours being spent working, studying, or training.

  2. 2.

    An entitlement to 18 weeks of paid parental leave paid by the Australian Government at the national minimum wage to families whose primary carer earns less than A$150,000 per annum was introduced with effect from 1 January 2011 (Australian Government 2010b). The ‘Fair Work Act’ which came into effect from 1 January 2010 introduced a minimum set of terms and conditions of employment, including a right to 12 months unpaid parental leave, a right to request a further 12 months, and ten days paid personal carer’s leave per year (Australian Government 2010c).

  3. 3.

    The name of this year varies between states. The term ‘kindergarten’ is used in New South Wales, the term ‘preparatory’ in Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria, ‘reception’ in South Australia, and ‘pre-year 1’ in Western Australia. There are differences between the states in the age of entry (Future Media Group 2012).

  4. 4.

    For 5 observations the number of hours worked was zero. These observations were treated as not being employed.

  5. 5.

    It is possible that different rates of attrition within the sample between mothers with different levels of education also affect these patterns.

  6. 6.

    In Australia Year 12 is the final year of school education.

  7. 7.

    This payment was originally known as the Maternity Payment. The amount increased from $3,000 at the time of its introduction in 2004 to $4,000 in 2006 and $5,000 in 2008 (Daniels 2009).

  8. 8.

    There are 5 observations for widowed mothers with children under five. The reform of family law would not be applicable to widowed mothers; however, the number of observations from this group is too small to affect the results substantially. The HILDA data show the percentage of the youngest resident children of divorced, or separated or widowed parents who spent zero nights per year staying overnight with the other parent fell from 39.6 % (of 139 observations) for the 2002–2006 period to 24.3 % (of 37 observations) for the 2007–2008 period.


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An earlier version of this paper was presented to the 15th Biennial Conference of the Australian Population Association in Surfers Paradise, Queensland 30 November-3 December 2010. This paper uses unit record data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey. The HILDA Project was initiated and is funded by the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) and is managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (Melbourne Institute). The findings and views reported in this paper, however, are those of the author and should not be attributed to either FaHCSIA or the Melbourne Institute. The author wishes to thank Amy Lo for assistance in preparing the figures and tables and an anonymous reviewer for comments received.

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Parr, N. Trends in differentials in the workforce participation of mothers with young children in Australia 2002–2008. J Pop Research 29, 203–227 (2012).

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  • Labour force participation
  • Employment
  • Hours worked
  • Fertility
  • Mothers
  • Australia
  • Families
  • Population policy